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Locked Room Reviews:
The God of Mystery?
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It is not everyday that you pick up a mystery and discover a true impossible crime masterpiece! There are a few early gems like ‘The Big Bow Mystery’ and ‘The Mystery of The Yellow Room’, then during the Golden Age, John Dickson Carr wrote more than his fair share of great locked rooms and impossible crimes, with many more classics being added by other locked room greats like Ellery Queen, Helen McCloy, Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot and a few others. In more modern times, Paul Halter has given Carr a real run for his title, and Christopher Fowler has certainly created some very fine impossible mystery literature. Yet, few of these incredible novels are as good as Soji Shimada’s 1981 classic, ‘The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’, which was only translated into English in 2004. This work is a completely haunting, macabre dance that will keep you turning pages and losing far too much sleep!
Soji Shimada (島田 荘司) is one of the great modern Japanese mystery writers. He was born in Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan in 1948. He spent years as a dump truck driver, freelance writer, and musician, before he made his debut as a mystery writer in 1981 when ‘The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ remained as a finalist in the Edogawa Rampo Awards for Japanese mystery fiction. Following the trend of the Social School of crime fiction led by Seicho Matsumoto, Shimada was the pioneer of the ‘Shin-Honkaku’ (New Orthodox) logic mystery genre. He proved to be a major source of inspiration for authors such as Yukito Ayatsuji, Rintaro Norizuki and Shogo Utano, and led the mystery boom from the late 1980s to the present day. As the father of ‘Shin-Honkaku’, Shimada is sometimes referred to as “The Godfather of Shin-Honkaku” or simply as the “God of Mystery.”
The framing story is set in Japan in 1979, when two friends come together to solve a famous serial murder case that has remained unsolved since 1936. Kazumi Ishioka is a freelance illustrator and avid mystery afficianado, and also the narrator. He has long studied the Zodiac Murders, a complicated series of very grisly crimes that have baffled police and true crime writers, and the rest of the population, for well over 30 years. He is far more than a simple Watson to his brilliant friend, the genius astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai, and they have just received a new piece of evidence that might finally shine new light on these old murders. Unfortunately, for Kazumi, Kiyoshi is no encyclopedic Sherlock! He knows absolutely nothing about this famous crime, a subject which he clearly considers to be extraneous knowledge, until he finally sets his mind to solve this enduring mystery.
The novel begins with one of the most spine-tingling pieces of eerie writing I have ever encountered, in the form of a document or will written by the first victim and found at the scene of his murder. Be forewarned, this section, and several other parts of this story, are extremely gruesome and not for the faint of heart! And the rather dry factual form of presentation only serves to make such brutality seem even colder! Shimada then shifts to the first act of the novel, where Kazumi attempts to lay out all the facts, complex relationships, and the suspect results of thirty years of prior investigations into the eight haunting murders of a father and seven of his daughters and nieces.
The basic story, related by Kazumi, involves a painter named Heikichi Umezawa, who has long been obsessed with astrology and alchemy. Heikichi is from a wealthy family and spent part of his youth in Paris. He is no longer young by 1936, he has divorced his first wife and lives in a large house, filled with his daughters and nieces, under the control of his second wife, Masuko. In his garden studio, he is about to complete his latest project, a series of 12 large paintings representing the houses of the Zodiac, when his head is smashed in with the proverbial blunt object, inside his locked studio, in the midst of a heavy snowfall. All the family seem to have alibis, and the only clues are the footprints of an unknown man and woman in the fresh snow, and the haunting notebook, which formed the prologue, is found inside Heikichi’s desk. This document tells the disturbing tale of his dark battle with madness and demons, which has led to an elaborate plan to create a goddess from selected body parts of six of his daughters and nieces, only excluding his oldest daughter, Kazue, who is deemed unfit as she is no longer a virgin. The goddess Azoth is to be constructed as the perfect woman born in the geographic centre of Japan. To achieve this goal, each girl must be killed by the proper alchemical poison, and each body must then be buried at a site and in a manner that is appropriate to their sign and alchemic relationship. If this plan is followed, Heikichi believes that his monstrous creation will be nothing less than the salvation of Japan, and only the portrait of Aries is left to be completed before this madman is scheduled to begin this insane plan, and that painting only lacks a face at the time of his murder!
Needless to say, the police are completely baffled and the confusion only grows after Kazue is also discovered with her head bashed in, and raped, inside her own home. Her death is quickly followed by a funereal journey to a shrine at Mount Yahiko, where all six daughters and nieces inexplicably disappear while Masuko is apparently spending a day or two visiting her parents in a nearby village. Everything seems to have gone exactly according to Heikichi’s detailed plan, except for one thing – he is dead – or is he? Dubbed the Zodiac Murders, Masuko will eventually be arrested and imprisoned on flimsy evidence after the girl’s mutilated bodies begin to appear, many buried near mines related to their astrological sign, in a variety of states of decomposition, and buried at different depths, in sites spread all across Honshu. Each one of the young women is missing the appropriate part of their anatomy, just as Heikichi had planned, yet despite a great national sensation and uncounted investigations, private and official, no trace of Azoth is ever discovered!
This section finally concludes with Act 2, the presentation of the new evidence, in the form of a secret confession written by a policeman who had unwillingly become entangled in these bizarre events. The letter has been found posthumously by his daughter, who has brought it to the genius astrologer to seek advice. This new information helps to clear up the riddle of how the killer disposed of the bodies across the countryside, but does little to solve the larger mystery, and when the boorish son of this policeman angrily challenges our pair of amateurs, in a fit of injured pride, Kiyoshi promises to solve this decades old mystery within a single week!
With this deadline firmly in place, Kiyoshi and Kazumi head to Kyoto to interview one of the few surviving friends of Heikichi, only to be thwarted at every turn, and six days later Kiyoshi has finally reached a breaking point as Act 3 is drawing to a close. Only then does Kazumi inadvertently provide a spark of inspiration which solves the case within two hours, though Kyoshi infuriatingly takes his time revealing the solution. Even after he has introduced the killer to Kazumi, we are still little wiser!
Only at this point does Soji Shimada finally deliver his fair play challenge, one of the best I have ever encountered, though I have little doubt that very few readers will have worked out the solution. I must admit that I was very far off the mark! However, any difficulties you may have are not the fault of the author for hiding key clues, and the book is chock full of diagrams and charts, as well as a dramatis personna that helps to keep the western reader from confusing all those unfamiliar Japanese names.
This book is quite important in the history of Japanese mystery fiction, being a return to the classic mystery style, known as honkaku, or New Orthodox, which originated in the 1920’s and focuses on plot and clues, rather than motivation. This movement has a lot in common with our renewed passion for the style of the Golden Age mystery novels in recent years. The Decagon House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji, is another important book in this sub genre which was just released this year by Locked Room International. Yet, the Tokyo Zodiac Murders is clearly no western imitation, it has a strong sense of being present in Japan, and gives many insights into the culture and customs of the country. The translation, by Ross and Shika Mackenzie, is also quite remarkable, with no feel of struggling through stilted grammar; it flows almost seamlessly!
Shimada’s detective, Kiyoshi Mitarai, is also a pure delight, especially considering that this his Shimada’s debut novel. The dialogue between the sleuths is a completely natural banter between two competitive friends, which is more than a bit sarcastic, and this novel often demonstrates a wicked sense of humour, especially when Kiyoshi dares to mock the great Sherlock! Yet, Kiyoshi is clearly a troubled man, confronting his own personal demons, but he is never cruel or malicious, and he joyfully responds with great delight each time he inches closer to a solution, only to fall into a short, deep, fits of despair when Kazumi informs him that his latest idea had been put forward many years earlier.
A couple of things stand out when we compare this locked room with the classic GA mysteries by English speaking authors. First, is the attention to detail! How many times have you wished you had a piece of information the author has failed to supply? No danger of that with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders! Shimada has done a masterful job of anticipating every potential question a reader could ask, right down to the minutest piece of evidence. Also, it is hard to miss the driven nature of Japanese society. These two detectives become so deeply involved in their quest, that they only half jokingly refer to the stereotypical Japanese tendency to commit hair-kari in the face of failure. It is very hard to imagine any western detective going to the very edge of insanity, simply because he could not solve a four decade old mystery in a single week! It is also far more gruesome than any of the darker crimes of the GA, with the zodiac killer making Jack the Ripper look like a bit of a Boy Scout!
Yet, there is also very clear evidence of the influence of Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, and others – who are given nods throughout – and though more descriptive than many of the GA novels, there is still a tendency to place plot above characterization and elaborate scene description, with a few very notable exceptions, especially when Shimada revels in the landscape of Kyoto. My only real objection is to his use of old forensic procedures to create a grand mystery that any modern CSI would have figured out in the spin of the DNA sequencer. Yet, the format is clearly designed precisely to achieve exactly that result and remains historically accurate, which leaves little room for complaint. Shimada even anticipates my rather weak objection by admitting that the crime would have been easily solved at the time of the 1979 framing story! The locked room device used in Heikichi’s murder is also rather over worked and too transparent, and there is nothing very impossible about the other murders. All of which means that strictly as a locked room mystery, there is little to shout about, but as a great piece of haunting horror-mystery fiction, with an extremely fair and nearly unsolvable plot, few mysteries will ever rival this delicious masterpiece!
How to rate this book? It doesn’t even need a second thought! This is an extremely well plotted mystery, with a great sense of humour, a wonderful atmosphere of gruesome terror, and a sufficiently developed level of characterization and scene description, which makes it a full five stars masterpiece! This is a truly brilliant mystery novel – regardless of any sub genre considerations! It even makes my all time top 10 list – and that is a very long list! We badly need more translations of this fabulous series featuring Kiyoshi Mitarai, and everything else that Shimada has written!
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