In 2018 and 2019, I encountered what are widely considered to be seminal works for a new generation of Japanese crime-fiction authors (the shin honkaku school that has already been referenced earlier on this blog). Both of them – The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally published in 1981 as Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken or The Astrology Murder Case) and Murder in the Crooked House (published as Naname Yashiki no Hanzai in 1982) – were written by Soji Shimada, and strangely enough, I finished reading both of them on the Christmas days of the respective years.

Now, this was not my first stab at Japanese crime fiction, as I had already encountered the Kindaichi and Conan series and a few other titles before this, but it is safe to say that these books together sparked an almost academic interest in this field for me.

The ultimate alchemical achievement

At the time I read it, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders ranked among the goriest and bloodiest novels I had the pleasure of reading. It wasn’t sufficient that the body count was ridiculously high (seven – no, one may say, eight – victims); seven of these cases involved decapitation and dismemberments. However, it is not the number that is, personally speaking, a point of interest. Instead, it is the purpose of the clever, deliberate and intricate way in which these deeds are carried out that is most intriguing.

Works such as Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) and Takagi Akimitsu’s The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) also feature sinister acts of a similar kind, but in these two titles, the aim is to obscure, misinform and befuddle investigators, and to make identification impossible which, in turn, ties into issues of alibi, and estimating and establishing the right time and scenes of the crimes. In The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, the dismemberments serve an altogether different, and far more outrageous goal: to create a ‘homunculus’ out of thin air – considered by many to be the ultimate alchemical achievement.

This, of course, ties into the introductory part of the story featuring the last will and testament of a certain Heikichi Umezawa, an eccentric painter and astrologer who had taken it upon himself to create Azoth, the ‘perfect woman’ according to alchemical standards. For this purpose, he intends to sacrifice his six nieces and daughters at astrologically determined, precise spots scattered all across Japan. And sure, soon enough, the women chosen by Umezawa are all slaughtered, and parts of their bodies are found at each of the places indicated by his testament.

The problem? Even before these murders took place, the would-be culprit (Heikichi) was found murdered in a locked room surrounded by snow.

All of these incidents happened way back in 1936. Forty years later, at the time the book is set, the cases still remain unsolved and have attained a legendary status in Japan, with many books written and numerous theories advanced on the subject. A university professor-cum-astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai and his friend Kazumi Ishioka come across Heikichi’s Azoth manuscript.

The details of the three separate cases – Heikichi’s death, the murder of Heikichi’s stepdaughter and the Azoth slayings – pique the interest of Kiyoshi, who also doubles as an amateur detective from time to time and who makes the bold declaration that he would arrive at the correct conclusion of this unsolved, baffling case within a week, based on the details laid out before him.

And arrive he does! There are some books whose importance cannot be overstated, not based on how likeable and unlikeable the constituent elements but simply because of what they achieve for a particular genre. In due time, such books become yardsticks to retrospectively measure the progress of the genre and often provide instructive threads, themes and tropes for future authors to replicate or develop in their own fashion. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one such book.

Indubitably, there are a number of inexcusable treatments in this book, especially in the manner in which it treats the characters, especially women. You can even argue that there’s a fair amount of ‘character assassination’ involved (both literally and figuratively) whereby the characters are fed as cannon fodder and treated as mere pieces in a larger puzzle game. In that respect, the book lacks a certain sense of humanity at its core, and the players, both old and new, all show their nastiest traits and rigid dogmatic views at different sections.

Worst of all, the abysmal treatment of the cast only largely furthers the purpose of trying to make the culprit a more sympathetic figure. It is also a dig at the tropes and conventions of the social school of mystery writing which was all the rage and which Shimada was trying to overturn when he wrote this book. Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that the pathetic portrayal of characters sticks out like a sore thumb.

Paving the way for the shin hokaku school

There’s equally no denying that the execution of the core mystery plot is exemplary and excellent. There’s an ingenious – one may say, even bombastic – false solution to the mystery of the locked-room conundrum in Heikichi’s case. However, the real solution has an elegance comparable to those found in Tetsuya Ayukawa’s short stories. When it comes to the six Azoth murders, it is unlikely that you will make the correct deduction, despite the two challenges to the readers from the author. There’s a mathematical complexity to Azoth’s existence that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. What you will experience, though, is the ‘aha’ moment when all the jigsaw pieces are fitted together to make perfect sense.

It is a glorious vindication of Shimada’s vision for the novel – it is his and his alone, and he owns it like a virtuoso. There are lessons to be learnt here for budding authors on how to craft a devious puzzle, and it is little wonder that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders paved the way for the birth of the shin honkaku school and its practitioners such as Yukito Ayatsuji and Alice Arisugawa, among many others, in a major way.

If The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was all about the excellence of execution of an intricate, complicated puzzle, it is the brilliant central premise of Murder in the Crooked House (Shimada’s second novel) that I have the highest regard for.

Murder in the Crooked House is, in essence, a mansion mystery – one that makes use of architectural features and functions more prominently than in its Western counterparts. The Crooked Mansion (or the Ice Floe Mansion) lies somewhere on the edge of a desolate cliff overlooking the icy Okhotsk Sea – a setting and location not entirely unreminiscent of End House in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House.

The mansion itself is mazy, but with no special features such as hidden panels and secret passages. It however has a special feature. The windows to the north and south are what one normally finds, but those on the east and west have had their frames built to run parallel to the ground outside. And since the mansion is situated on an incline, the visitors feel like “a hard-boiled egg that has been dropped on the floor” and “is trying to roll uphill”, much to the amusement of the mansion’s owner, Kozaburo Hamamoto, the President of Hama Diesel. There is an adjoining tower built of glass – an exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with the same tilt – that houses Hamamoto’s room and is connected to the main mansion by a drawbridge. At the foot of the tower is a strangely shaped flower garden.

Hamamoto invites a select circle of friends consisting of fellow businesspeople, their wives and secretaries, and a few college students to this property for Christmas and New Year. At the party, he also promises the hand of his daughter Eiko to the one who is able to unravel the meaning of the flower garden’s layout and design. However, strange incidents start to plague the gathering.

A guest sees a long wooden stake in an ice field in the middle of a snow blizzard when earlier there had been none. Another visitor is scared out of her wits by scraping metallic sounds on the ceiling of her room on the topmost floor and a grotesque, unearthly face appearing on one of the windows of the same room. The next day, Hamamoto and his company are shocked to find the corpse of one of the guests in a locked storeroom, his body twisted at an unnatural angle and one of his wrists tied to the foot of the bed. On the way to the room, they also encounter the damaged remains of a life-sized puppet-like doll, the Golem, which Hamamoto had purchased in erstwhile Czechoslovakia.

The police are called to the scene, but they prove to be none the wiser. Even worse, another mysterious death happens under their watch in a locked room. More attacks on the remaining guests happen. As a last resort, the police decide to call in Kiyoshi Mitarai, a man they deem fit to solve a case such as this.

Unlike The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Murder in the Crooked House unfolds in real time. The result is a welcome urgency that allows one to witness Mitarai being forced to take sly steps to resolve the matter as soon as possible. This is much unlike The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, where all you see is Mitarai mostly talking to people about past events and then drawing his conclusions based on those conversations. Here though, Mitarai, omniscient and omnipotent though he is in both novels, is a far more active participant even though he appears pretty late in the picture.

Admittedly, the scale and scope of Mitarai’s second adventure is far less stunning and impressive – no cut-up bodies or an Azoth-like apparition emerging out of nowhere. The circle of suspects is also very compact. And due to the mechanics of the murders, especially the second (one that reminds me, incidentally, of a Detective Conan episode involving scores of masks and a knife), the whodunnit aspect isn’t really a draw. In fact, once you are aware of the central trick employed, the culprit becomes fairly obvious as no one else except that person could have committed it.

For me, three things stand out in Murder in the Crooked House: the way architecture plays an integral role in the events of the novel, the howdunnit aspect of the second murder and the absolutely-nuts central premise of the work. An expensive mansion and tower existing for the sole purpose of murdering a person to honour a promise made to a deceased friend speaks of a directness of thought and approach that is hard not to appreciate.

This directness is also reflected in the straightforward path taken by the murder weapon, during the second case, from its source to the intended target. Interestingly enough, all the complexities in the mansion’s layout and myriad features (including the wall of masks in the Tengu Room) are only present as accessories and tools to emphasise the singular directness of the aim and intent behind it all. It would seem as though Shimada built the entire novel around a single trick – but what an innovative, awe-inspiring trick that is.

Retrospective studies and analyses of Japanese crime fiction often cite these books as turning points in the genre’s history in Japan. They may not have been popular when they were published, but the greatest vindication of their virtues has been the emergence of a new sub-genre (shin honkaku) and generations of writers who continue to take notes from or look to them for inspiration and guidance. Sure, both of Shimada’s books are flawed reads, and critically so in many respects. However, there is no denying either that decades after they were published, the tenets laid down in these books still act as guideposts and beacons for readers and writers in a country well-known for its involvement and contributions to crime fiction – and for a global audience as well, now that they are in translation. One wishes for more works from Shimada’s massive oeuvre to be introduced the world over.

Also read:

Can a detective novel study the evolution of a city through its history of crime and detection?

‘The Red Locked Room’: How Tetsuya Ayukawa unlocks locked room mysteries

How Keikichi Ōsaka blended crime with philosophical meditations on the puzzling nature of existence

How a Japanese island mystery novel replicated the Ellery Queen and Sherlock Holmes brand of mystery