Sunday, November 1, 2015

THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS ~ Soji Shimada

Japan, 1936. An old eccentric artist living with seven women has been found dead - in a room locked from the inside. His diaries reveal alchemy, astrology and a complicated plan to kill all seven women and to use parts of each women to create an ideal women. Shortly afterwards, the plan is carried out: the women are found dismembered and buried across rural Japan. By 1979, these Tokyo Zodiac Murders had been obsessing a nation for decades, but not one of them has been solved. A mystery-obsessed illustrator and a talented astrologer sets off around the country - and you follow, carrying the enigma of the Zodiac murderer through madness, missed leads and magic tricks. You have all the clues, but can you solve the mystery before they do?



The author challenges you to solve this mystery, as this book belongs to the popular honkaku, “orthodox” or “authentic” sub-genre of murder mysteries, unlike psychological thrillers this genre tends to focus on plotting and on following the trail of laid clues. The idea is that the reader is not lead astray by the writer, but placed in the same setting as the book’s protagonists, given the same opportunities to solve the mystery - in fact there are several points that Soji Shimada actually stops the tale and tells you that you have all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle and challenges you to do so before the book’s own heroes. Honkaku writers tend to shy away from any form of social criticism, setting themselves apart from writers such as Ryū Murakami, Natsuo Kirino and Shuichi Yoshida, hearkening back to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie & Edgar Allen Poe. This style of fiction was predominant around the 1920s and 30s, but had been written since at least 1911, the genre even came to be codified with its own set of rules which were either Knox's "Ten Commandments" (or "Decalogue") (Ronald Knox) or the similar but more detailed list of prerequisites prepared by S. S. Van Dine in an article entitled "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" this appeared in The American Magazine in September 1928 and were commonly referred to as  Van Dine's Commandments – in this list the rules of engagement are:


  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

 2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

  3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

 4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering someone a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. Its false pretences.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic book.

 7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one Deus ex Machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his conductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

 10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

 11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyse it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plotting and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knock-out drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) the word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

Although written in 1928, for the most part these rules appeared to be adhered to and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders would with utmost grace be welcomed amongst the classics of this period, in fact such is the complexity of plot and the sheer elegance of the solution to this book, Shimada’s writing would be in the forefront of any of the writing to have come out at that period of time. I’ve chosen to write very little about the book itself and more about its genre, my reasoning is that to reveal too much about the plot itself would be breaking the rules by revealing details, thereby giving the reader a head start over the books detectives and negating the veracity of the challenge and, although I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and have even advised my wife (who is a big Agatha Christie fan) to give it a go, once I started researching the backstory this appealed to my sense of history and added a detail that to me at the very least enhances the reading experience.

 For any fan of The Golden Age of Detective Fiction and writers such as Margery Allingham (1904–1966), Anthony Berkeley (aka Francis Iles, 1893–1971), Agatha Christie (1890–1976), Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957), R. Austin Freeman (1862–1943), Michael Innes (1906–1993), Philip MacDonald (1900–1980), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957), Josephine Tey (1896–1952), Anne Hocking (1890–1966), Edmund Crispin (1921-1978), Cyril Hare (1900-1958), this book will be an instantly loved addition to their library, anyone who is a fan of the  modern exponent of this style writers such as Sarah CaudwellRuth Dudley EdwardsPeter Lovesey and Simon Brett, or of the television series Murder, She Wrote, will also find delight in the plot detail, the elegance in which the solution is revealed and in the challenge set by the author to be beat his own detectives.


Born in 1948 in Hiroshima prefecture, Soji Shimada has been dubbed the 'God of Mystery' by international audiences. A novelist, essayist and short-story writer, he made his literary début in 1981 with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Blending classical detective fiction with grisly violence and elements of the occult, he has gone on to publish several highly acclaimed series of mystery fiction, including the casebooks of Kiyoshi Mitarai and Takeshi Yoshiki.

 He is the author of 100+ works in total. In 2009 Shimada received the prestigious Japan Mystery Literature Award in recognition of his life's work.


The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is part of Pushkin Vertigo, a crime imprint. Starting by Pushkin Press in September 2015 the imprint will publish crime classics from around the world, focusing on tours-de-force works written between the 1920s and 1970s by international masters of the genre, with spine-tingling jackets designed by Jamie Keenan.

7 comments:

Violet said...

Goodness. Such a lot of rules. It sounds as though you enjoyed researching the genre. I'm still looking for Japanese lit that isn't full of murder and psychological weirdness. Maybe it just doesn't get translated, or something.

Brian Joseph said...

Though perhaps too restrictive, I loved reading through those rules.


i can also see that by following them, an author could create a really neat experience for a reader.

Mae Travels said...

Thank you for the fabulous compendium of writers and details on this particular mystery genre. I will definitely read the work in question -- I think it's already on my list. I've read quite a few books by the listed authors, and sometimes they follow most or all of the rules, sometimes they play around and break some of them. Example: the Peter Diamond books by listed author Peter Lovesey vary as to which mystery type is in each book: there's even a "locked room" mystery.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

James said...

You have provided a cornucopia of information about classic writers and detective devices. Plus a wonderful new author for me to explore. Thanks for this delightful post.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Violet, this is probably as close as your going to get. And yes I did enjoy the research angle.

Hi Brian, I think that a bit like most rules that exist in art, the truly great pick & choose, or subvert them & only the bad or the confidence lacking slavishly adhere to them.

Hi Mae, I think the rules were codified based on works already written and they were an example of a method to describe this form of fiction. For more info, check out the link http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/goldenage.htm

Hello James, if you're a fan of this type of fiction you'll definitely enjoy this book.

Bellezza said...

I'm immediately entranced. Off to buy it immediately, I am so passionate about mysteries, and murders which confuses me, like there must be some sick side to me hidden away somewhere), and finding out who dunnit. I was completely caught up in Kirino's Out, and you point out that this is not like that as it leaves out social criticism and is focused more completely on the plot. Wow, great review. You've caught me, again.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Bellezza, this is almost more of a puzzle than a work of fiction, it's only the elegance of the writing that enhances the puzzle aspect & creates a wonderful book that challenges you to solve it.