Some families have all the luck – take the Khardashians, for example, who are universally blessed with charm, intelligence and talent – whereas some miss out altogether. Into this second category would definitely fall the Umezawa clan: not only is patriarch Heikichi found battered to death in his locked art studio, his eldest daughter is then found murdered a few months later and, following that, his six other daughters, step-daughters and nieces all disappear simultaneously and their dismembered bodies are discovered at various intervals buried in different locations around Japan. Then it turns out that Heikichi Umezawa had written a document outlining his intention to do exactly this to these women, with methods of murder and disposal based on their zodiac signs, so the mystery of who could have carried out his nefarious scheme raises its ugly head and remains unsolved for decades…
This is the mystery in Soji Shimada’s hugely influential debut novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which launched a new type of crime writing in Japan known as shin honkaku (new orthodox) mysteries and is now finally back in print in English from Pushkin Vertigo. My only previous experience of shin honkaku was the massively entertaining The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji published by Locked Room International earlier this year and, like virtually everyone who read that, I was delighted when the reprint of this book was announced – Shimada bestrides this genre in his home country, and is seen as a key innovator in crime fiction for the work he has done (TDHM contains an illuminating foreword by Shimada and a superb afterword by Ho-Ling Wong that outline this very well indeed). It is also a highly-regarded locked room mystery, which is where my knowledge of and interest in it stems from, and has been one of my most eagerly-anticipated reads of 2015. So how does it measure up?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t love it. Taking into account the fact that it was the first of its kind allows for many of the problems I have with it, but put into the context of the abundance of imposible crimes and novels of detection that were available significantly in advance of this it struggles to impress. The locked room murder of Heikichi, for instance, is disappointingly routine, and many of the key shocks in the narrative seemed a touch obvious (for all the speculation about Heikichi’s death and who picked up the reins of his scheme, there’s one key aspect that’s never touched…it struck me as odd that no-one had commented on this….and that’s because it was the solution). Additionally, I’m just not sold on the Ellery Queen-esque promises – two! count ’em! – to the reader of you having all the clues to solve the multiple murder…I mean, really? Technically, yes, but there’s some alarmingly esoteric knowledge required – plus one giant off-page leap by our detective – and so it hardly qualifies as fair play.
Possibly on account of an overly-literal translation, it also reads like a novel written in the style of footnotes for most of its duration – the framing of solving the murders 40-odd years later is important, but the info-dump of the first third of the book to bring you up to speed is a killer. The dialogue is so on the nose that it would make Enid Blyton wince (“Yes, it’s amazing! I’m so lucky to know you!”) and the plot is replete with digressions into tangential matters – chemical equations of the action of poisons, for instance – rendered in dust-dry prose. Possibly there’s the argument that Shimada is enriching his milleu, but it’s done with no real care and you can spot these pointless digressions as soon as they appear because he suddenly starts writing travelogue or dropping in a directionless history lesson without any reference to the case. Thus the elements that play a part in the story are easy to pick out because they’re actually interesting or relevant, and those less interested than I might need to skim sections to get through it.
But then comes the solution to the multiple murders. And it is brilliant. Actually quite frustratingly brilliant. Like, genuinely surprising and intelligent enough to justify the reputation it is credited with for creating the honkaku genre; reading this in isolation, you would immediately wish you could write a book with that much simple invention at its heart, and taken in that context it reminds me of the moment I finally got what was so good about John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man. Does it completely convince me? No, but I’m willing to forgive a lot of its problems for just how much chutzpah Shimada puts on the page. It’s just a shame that the last 20 pages don’t contain anything new, because it ends on a bit of a whimper when it should have gone out on a blinding and deafening cacophony.
I’ve made no mention of the characters because there sort of aren’t any, and Shimada would be the first to admit this (he does it in his TDHM foreword, in fact). It’s not quite pure scheme – there’s too much redundancy for that – but as a window on another culture discovering the joys of intelligent crime fiction it is just about worthy of your time. Just don’t expect a timeless classic for the ages, however, although arguably the purpose of this type of origin is to get other people excited and encouraged to try themselves so that they may in time exceed you. And in that regard, it succeeds admirably.
A quick word on the paperback edition – Pushkin Vertigo have done a fabulous job with this, from the eye-catching cover design by Jamie Keenan (who has designed all the covers in the series to date) and high-quality production to the involvement of Locked Room International’s John Pugmire, who has prepared this version for publication. If they produce everything to this standard, more power to them!