Given that an overwhelming majority of modern crime writing really isn’t my thing, it’s always lovely to see Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine publish some short fiction for me to get excited about, like a new Paul Halter story or, as in the current November/December 2017 issue, something from Japanese master Soji Shimada (I’ll Westernise his name herein, since that’s what I’ve done previously).
‘The Running Dead’ originally appeared in the May 1985 Japanese edition of EQMM under the title ‘The Running Corpse’, and features the brilliant astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai who first appeared in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981). There’s much to enjoy in seeing how the plot unfolds, but the essentials are that Mitarai is present at a private gathering of jazz musicians and fans when one of the guests steals a valuable necklace, runs out the door of the twelfth-floor apartment…and miraculously vanishes. There’s a lot more setup around this, including a demonstration of psychic abilities, but I’d advise going in knowing no more. So, well, having said that, what am I going to write about now?
This stands out so much from everything else in this issue of EQMM because of how finely it plays the classic strings: a closed circle, a baffling occurrence, and — once that aspect is resolved — even more bafflement to come, including a dead body turning up where is cannot possibly be and then the additional confusion of what’s found in the corpse’s pockets. Shimada layers puzzle upon puzzle in a calm and effortless way that bespeaks of the illustrious career he has enjoyed and that remains frustratingly out of reach to those of us unable to read Japanese. As with later story ‘The Locked House of Pythagoras’ (2013), there’s a clear sense of physical space necessary to get the full picture of what happened, and no fewer than three diagrams are included to help achieve this (I exclude the third one as it shows a key aspect of how something was worked, so ‘ware skipping ahead when you’re reading this story):
Running Dead Scene 1
Running Dead Scene 2
What’s also interesting about this is how little clewing there is, with virtually nothing to act as a harbinger of the revelations to come, and yet how it still manages to delight with the solution to the various problems. It’s not fair play in the strictest sense, but what it holds back is sort of obvious by implication of the events the unfold…and as someone who feels especially poorly treated by unfairness in declaration of clues when I see it I have to say this didn’t bother me at all here.
There’s also some legitimate humour, which is not something I’ve seen in the small amount of Shimada’s writing that has been translated thus far: one character described as not doing anything in a given situation, “like a politician visiting a disaster area” and an altercation between two people being “even more violent than a Parent-Teacher Association meeting”. Given the slightly sombre tone and the explanation-heavy denouement these unexpected moments of levity jumped out a little as non-sequitirs, but it made me realise that none of the (undeniably very limited amount of) shin honkaku I’ve read actually jumps at humour in quite this way. It’s true that being surrounded by death and confusion is hardly the moment to start cracking wise, but I enjoyed these moments of a slight easing of the tension even if they don’t quite fit tonally.
And then, if further delight were needed, there’s the following:
Now, quite apart from my delight as a Challenge to the Reader on its own, I’m even more excited by the prospect that Shimada considers this one of the easy cases he’s written. With Ho-Ling on the case — and this translation, along with Yuko Shimada’s of ‘The Locked House of Pythagoras’, shows that Shimada can be translated well, both representing a huge improvement on the awkward transition done with the English language version of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders — surely we’re only a matter of rights away from more Shimada in English. I’m aware the Japanese tradition tends to run towards longer narratives and so there’s probably very little of this length in his oeuvre (and this isn’t exactly what you’d call a short story), but when the quality is this high your average, and your above average, fan of such excellent writing will happily persevere through more text to such an enjoyable conclusion.
Because — didn’t I say? — the solution here is excellent. Complex, sure, and not without risk, and possibly a little difficult to buy in normal circumstances…but when isn’t that the case in classic-styled detective fiction? Okay, sure, there’s no detection as such, but Mitarai has a clever line of reasoning worked out from (mostly) what he’s observed, and the development that puts him onto the truth is appropriately nonsense and sly in equal measure. He becomes a very interesting character, too, in his reasons for delaying the explanation of events, and the promise that the police inspector involved can contact him “Whenever you have a case that’s more complex than today’s” surely hints at some truly tortuous stuff in his case file somewhere along the track.
So, c’mon: Soji Shimada in English, when is more of it going to happen? And while you’re on it, some Rintaro Norizuki is desperately overdue, too…