On 29 September 1985, four men arrive at the Mill House, located deep in the mountains of Okayama prefecture, for their annual visit, but the weekend quickly spirals into a sinister nightmare: two bodies are discovered, a guest goes missing, and a valuable painting disappears. Exactly one year later, the remaining guests gather again, hoping to put the past behind them. However, with the approach of a typhoon and the arrival of an unexpected visitor, an eerie sense of foreboding returns.
Written by Yukito Ayatsuji and translated by Ho-Ling Wong, The Mill House Murders alternates between two separate timelines: one in 1985 and another in the following year of 1986. Originally published in Japanese in the late 1980s, it is the second in his “House” series, the first being the cult classic The Decagon House, which draws inspiration from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Ayatsuji was a founding member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan and is known for popularizing the genre of detective fiction written in the same vein as Golden Age mysteries but with distinctly Japanese settings.
Fujinuma Kiichi is the master of the Mill House; he retreated to the secluded mansion after a car accident which left him severely injured. Since then, he has worn a rubber mask to cover his face, which led some locals to dub the place “Mask Manor”. From the exterior, its most distinctive features are the water wheels which provide electric power and old-world charm. One guest observes:
They almost look like they are turning against the flow of time, keeping the house and everything in this valley frozen in a never-ending moment.
The upstairs tower room of the residence is inhabited by Yurie, Kiichi’s beautiful wife. Growing up, she had little contact with the outside world so, like the house, she also seems trapped in time. Kiichi appears to be insecure about their relationship, worrying she might become captivated by another man, such as Masaki Shingo, an old friend of his who has been staying with them for a while.
Every year, Kiichi holds an exhibition of his late father’s artwork and invites the four men: art dealer Oishi Genzo, art history professor Mori Shigehiko, surgeon Mitamura Noriyuki, and priest Furukawa Tsunehito. But he firmly refuses their requests to view the artist’s last painting, “The Phantom Cluster”, which only heightens their curiosity. An eclectic group, each of the guests has a possible motive for committing the crimes.
Throughout the novel, the location of each scene is specified, making it convenient for readers to track the characters’ movements and alibis. The Mill House has a complex floor plan with an array of rooms: servants’ quarters, guest rooms, galleries, and halls. What is more, the architect who designed the blueprints is notorious for incorporating hidden passages and secret rooms into his creations, sometimes even without the owner’s knowledge.
In a quest to uncover the truth, an uninvited caller named Shimada Kiyoshi joins the group in the 1986 timeline. He believes that the police may have come to incorrect conclusions during their investigation the previous year. A mystery novel enthusiast, he looks to the great fictional detectives for inspiration in his attempt to crack the case. He describes his approach as follows:
… solving a problem is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle. However, in this case we don’t have a picture of the completed puzzle, nor do we know how many pieces there are in total. And of course, the pieces of our mystery might not be flat, but three-dimensional, or perhaps they even have four or five dimensions. So depending on who is putting the pieces together, we could all end up with completely different pictures, or perhaps I should say ‘shapes’.
The suspense intensifies as Shimada’s investigation takes shape and he begins to uncover the truth about the mysterious Mill House and those inside it. With atmospheric descriptions of the manor and its surroundings, Ayatsuji weaves a complex web of clues, daring readers to solve the puzzle before the final reveal.