Turning Japanese #9: The Red Locked Room (1954-61) by Tetsuya Ayukawa (translated by Ho-Ling Wong)

The blurb to this recent Lock Room International anthology boldly compares Ayukawa to two kings of the mystery genre:

“Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.”

Before getting into that judging, let’s meet our sleuths as outlined by Taku Ashibe* in his informative introduction:

Stories marked (O) feature Chief Inspector Onitsura who is “mostly occupied with breaking down alibis…and is perhaps best described as ‘Ellery Queen wearing the face of Inspector French'”.

Stories marked (H) feature amateur detective Ryuzo Hoshikage “to whom Chief Inspector Tadokoro turns in much the same way as Inspector Lestrade turned to Sherlock Holmes”.

The White Locked Room (H)

The Meteorological Agency may have underestimated the amount of snow that fell but at least they recorded accurately that it stopped at 8.40pm, a vital piece of evidence in this no-footprints mystery. I’m not that well read in this specific sub-genre so I can’t give it a fair rating but I liked it, especially the import of armchair detective Ryuzo Hoshikage’s questions on whether a suspect had hurt his foot and whether anyone had reported a dog or cat being burnt in the neighbourhood.

Whose Body? (O)

An empty acid bottle, a recently fired gun, and a length of rope are sent to three artists. What may have been a joke of some sort turns out to much more sinister when a week later a body is found on which these “three tools of death” may have been used.

This initial set-up and then the ideas which are explored here are brilliant and could well have been fashioned into a full-length novel. The only issue I have is with the presentation as we don’t see much of the detection taking place but rather are given the explanations after the events have taken place.

The Blue Locked Room (H)

Uses a classic GAD trope in one aspect but apart from that there’s not much to write home about.

Death in Early Spring (O)

The prologue states:

“To understand the full detail of what happened, it is unfortunately necessary to examine a dry series of railway timetables. Only by doing so will it become clear how the culprit managed to mystify the chief inspector without utilising any special trickery of their own.”

The statement above is somewhat unexpected and yet is proved to be completely accurate. I loved this one as well and I think Crofts would have as well, particularly as it is through innovative work done by National Railways that Onitsura ends up on the right track.

The Clown in the Tunnel (H)

Not just a murderous clown, but a murderous clown that vanishes from inside a tunnel under observation at both ends – sleep well everybody!

This includes a neat trick which I’m sure I must have come across before but can’t remember where.

The Five Clocks (O)

A suspect’s alibi seems too good to be true but if it is not true how could he have fixed five separate clocks to make it seem true?

This contains a neat chance piece of evidence that puts the final nail into the criminal’s coffin but unnecessarily misses out a key bit of evidence from someone’s account to the police and again has too much tell and not enough show.

The Red Locked Room (H)

An after hours dissection of a murder victim takes place on a university campus but where were the body parts to be sent and how did the killer get in and out of the locked facility?

This is a top-notch puzzle and it makes me wonder whether Ayukawa was aware of a particular story and whether this is a deliberate nod to it.


Overall I think the comparison to FWC is more apt than to JDC but I would say 5 from the 7 stories are strong and justify having bought this collection. If you, like me, want to see more translations of Japanese mysteries, then get hold of this to show that the demand is there.

Meanwhile I’m looking forward to taking a look (probably in a couple of month’s time) at Locked Room International’s latest offering “Lending the Key to the Locked Room” by Tokuya Higashigawa.

*Having looked him up I’ve now got another book to add to my wishlist “Murder in the Red Chamber”.











Previous posts in this series:

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji – WITH SPOILERS


8 thoughts on “Turning Japanese #9: The Red Locked Room (1954-61) by Tetsuya Ayukawa (translated by Ho-Ling Wong)”

  1. Personally, I thought “The Clown in the Tunnel” was better than “The Red Locked Room,” because you can easily figure out the latter if you’re familiar with tricks and tropes of the Japanese detective story. Still a good and solid example of the shin honkaku detective story and locked room mystery.

    Murder in the Red Chamber is a weird, but fascinating, novel set in the world of a famous, 18th century Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. It’s a very eventful novel with a giant cast of characters and a whole slew of impossible crimes. Not all of them have great solutions, but the trick to make a body miraculous appear in the middle of a field of flowers was clever and imaginative. The biggest drawback is that to fully appreciate it, you have to read that 2000-page Chinese novel to get all references and understand the characters. So to most of us (including me) it’s just a weird and imaginative detective novel.


    1. I’m not yet that familiar with the particular tropes having only been reading translated Japanese mystery fiction since the start of 2020.

      Apart from Locked Room International and Pushkin Vertigo where else can I find translated honkaku and shin honkaku?


  2. You’re going great guns on these, John; glad you found so much here to enjoy, and I agree that there are some excellent ideas herein. Would be fascinated to read Ayukawa in the longer form — the likes of ‘The Five Clocks’ would support a 80,000 word investigation in the Crofts mode, and be even more delightful as I result, I’m sure 🙂


    1. Well hopefully we’ll get to read an Ayukawa novel in English some day soon. Short story wise I’ll be taking a look at “Ellery Queen’s Japanese Mystery Stories” next month.


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