Translated from the Japanese by Ross and Shika Mackenzie, ‘The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ by Soji Shimada opens with the last will and testament of Heikichi Umezawa written in 1936. Heikichi is an artist obsessed with alchemy and astrology who outlines his plans to create the supreme woman Azoth by killing and dismembering his female relatives. However, the murders he had planned in his confession are carried out by someone else several weeks after Heikichi himself is murdered in a room locked from the inside. Having baffled investigators for decades, the case remains unsolved over forty years later in 1979 until Kiyoshi Mitari and his sidekick and narrator Kazumi try to crack one of the most intriguing locked room cold cases of all time.
First published in Japan in 1981, ‘The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ is Shimada’s debut novel and the English translation was reissued last year by the Pushkin Press imprint Vertigo for classic crime fiction in translation. The plot is based on the sub-genre of “honkaku” (“orthodox” or “authentic”) crime fiction in which the mystery elements of the plot are deliberately given precedence over other aspects such as character development and the clues are placed in such a way that readers should be able to work out the solution for themselves. This means that much of the text is essentially an extended discussion between Kiyoshi and Kazumi – the Japanese answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – as they comb through all of the evidence and rule out various scenarios and suspects through a logical and methodical process of elimination. There are also several references to the work of John Dickson Carr who is arguably the most famous locked room mystery writer of all time.
As usual, I didn’t manage to guess the identity of the murderer before the big reveal but even though honkaku novels do not set out to deceive the reader, the mystery is not easy to solve and I think the twist will still come as a surprise to the vast majority of readers. There are a lot of details to keep track of but Kiyoshi’s explanation in the final part in which he outlines the culprit’s motives, opportunities and means for carrying out the crimes shows that the clues were right there in the text all along and the conclusion is very satisfying.
‘The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ moves at a slow pace and is driven far more by plot than it is by the main characters which is very different from the psychological thriller genre I tend to prefer. However, it is an intricately constructed mystery which will particularly appeal to those who enjoy solving challenging puzzles. I will be looking out for more Puskhin Vertigo crime fiction titles in the future.