The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada (1981)

It’s been a long time since a book left my jaw hanging on the floor.  Too long.  I mean, man, I’ve read some really solid mysteries in the past year, but I can’t say that I’ve had a meme worthy reaction when a revelation came.  Skimming back through my reads, it was nearly a year ago, with Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel, that I had my last true “holy shit” moment.  And after completing The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, my heart’s pumping, I’m resisting the urge to sprint through every Japanese honkaku impossible crime novel on my shelves, and my next read is already feeling like a let down.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders isn’t a stranger to top impossible crime lists, and I knew that I was going to get something crazy.  The big shin honkaku novels that I’ve read so far – think the likes of The Eight Mansion Murders, The Decagon House Murders, The Moai Island Puzzle – have all been insane in the best way, and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is viewed as the genre innovator that started it all.

Honestly though, I was a bit underwhelmed for about 95% of the read.  I had faith that something big was going to happen, and yet as the pages ticked by, the prospect for living up to the reputation kept dwindling.  That final 5% will remain etched in my mind for all time, but I have to be straight that what led up to it had its flaws.

To be clear, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is overall a fine read.  It’s not like any part of it is bad.  I think the first flaw is that when you think of most incredible impossible crimes, it’s that gauntlet thrown down by the author somewhat early in the novel that teases at you for a solution for the remaining pages.  Not so much in this case.  There is a core crime that indeed qualifies as an impossibility; a man bludgeoned to death in a locked hut surrounded by a field of fresh snow.  “Hey, that’s two for the price of one”, you might be thinking, so what gives?  A locked room and a footprints puzzle are indeed two of my favorite things in life, don’t get me wrong, but this just didn’t feel big enough.

So where does it falter?  For one, the crime gets picked apart almost as soon as it’s presented.  I love a false solution (the aforementioned Death of Jezebel surely features a dozen), but the first one – offered while the paint is still quite wet – casts aside most notions of the impossible and leaves us in almost conventional crime territory.  Over the course of the book we’re given several other possible solutions, and you know, none of them were anything special.

The other big weakness is that the story kind of meanders.  There’s a lot of what might qualify as trivia tucked into the pages, and it really pads things out.  It’s all kind of interesting stuff – you’ll learn a lot about Japan – but if you were to pull most of it into footnotes then the novel would run about two thirds the length.

The core story itself is great.  Some nut job of an artist decides to murder his seven daughters/step-daughters/nieces, hack up their bodies, and construct a sort of Frankenstein-doll with the pieces.  He doesn’t get the chance though, as he’s murdered under aforementioned impossible circumstance.  Somebody though appears to have decided to take up his plans, as the female family members disappear, only to wind up with their chopped up corpses being distributed throughout Japan.

The crime is never solved, and forty-some years on it’s still somewhat of a national obsession.  That’s where our two amateur detectives come in: a pair of friends who attempt to solve the mystery in a semi-comical Watson/Holmes relationship.  We’re dealing with a crime from the past, and so there’s plenty digging into the history, but few surviving suspects to interview.

When the solution comes, it hits like a baseball bat.  The moment of revelation left my jaw hanging slack, and it’s the exact sensation that will forever have me looking for that next big hit.  The Tokyo Zodiac Murders may not be in the running for “the best novel that features an impossible crime”, but it definitely belongs to the list of “best impossible crime featured in a novel”.  I may be nerding out with that distinction, but it’s basically the difference between The Problem of the Wire Cage (excellent story and impossible crime setup, but perhaps not the best solution) and Whistle Up the Devil (somewhat cardboard story, paired with two of the best impossible crimes of all time).

In short, this is very much a novel that anyone with passion for impossible crimes should read.  It’s definitely not a starting point, but you have to get to it at some point in your journey. Soji Shimada went on to write quite a few other mysteries, and we can only hope that someone decides to translate them all. For now, I have Murder in the Crooked House to look forward to, but looking at the list of untranslated titles – such as The Cannibal Tree of Dark Hill or The Crystal Pyramid – is about as tempting as looking at Paul Halter’s untranslated catalogue.

19 thoughts on “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders – Soji Shimada (1981)”

  1. I always knew this would knock your socks off. I recall my first comment on your blog was something to the effect of ”Good novel, but its the solution thats in the running for best ever”. Tokyo Zodiac is one of only two endings that produced such an acute release of dopamine in my brain. When the trick is explained and you realise what purpose the concept of Azoth really served. Oh. My. God.

    Sadly there’s still little else by Shimada that’s translated. Aside from Murder in the Crooked House, which was spoiled for me but that I still intend to read one of these days, he has a short in the Realm of the Impossible compilation by LRI, which wasn’t anything to write home about.

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  2. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is great and deserves its status as a classic! Not only because of its gory, labyrinthine plot and its fantastic ending, but how the book became the foundation of the entire shin honkaku movement. So glad you liked it and hope you’ll enjoy Murder in the Crooked House.

    I agree with AB that the short story in Realm of the Impossible, “The Locked House of Pythagoras,” is not his best with a patchy, second-rate impossible crime. “The Executive Who Lost His Mind” and “The Running Dead” showed much more of the ingenuity and originality found in Shimada’s novels.


    1. Due to the gory premise (although the book isn’t really gory at all), I got mixed up with some of the details that I’d read about The Tattoo Murder Case, which I have yet to read. I’m hoping that one is similarly good.


      1. Don’t expect another Tokyo Zodiac Murders. The Tattoo Murder Case has been overshadowed in recent years by translations of better honkaku and shin honkaku mysteries, but the story is still very rich in both culture and history. Yes, the locked room murder is everything you expect from a Japanese mystery toying around with severed limbs and headless torsos. A little flawed in certain parts, but there was a time when The Tattoo Murder Case was the only Japanese locked room mystery available in English. It was enough to make impossible crime fans crave for more.


  3. In a way, it’s a real shame the solution is so distinctive. I would love to see it in a book that isn’t mostly padding. But if you used it it would be pretty obvious you’d nicked it. The setup is basically perfect, too. Maybe I should just skip the padding if I ever reread it, that’s the most efficient way to make it a different book.


    1. There actually IS another story with that same solution: one of the early stories in the KINDAICHI CASE FILES manga series “borrowed” the TOKYO ZODIAC gimmick, albeit attached to a completely different plot setup. (And by the way, anyone who’s interested in shin honkaku stories and impossible crimes would love Kindaichi Case Files, which sadly never caught on in the US and had a relatively small number of stories translated into English.)


  4. It’s nice to see another good review of this one right when I’ve got it on interlibrary loan. About halfway through the padding is apparent, but it’s interesting enough that I don’t really mind. (Seems like Shimada really did just throw everything and the kitchen sink in there. I mean, I can’t imagine the formula for the formation of arsenious acid turns out to be relevant, though as a chemistry student, I sure hope it does…) I can’t wait to learn the solution, though I think I might have been spoiled on part of it. If it’s anywhere near as good as Death of Jezebel, it probably won’t matter that much even if I was.


      1. Just finished it yesterday, using time that I should, by all rights, have been using to study for finals. (If I louse up my ACS exam, I’m blaming Shimada Soji personally 🙂 But once I got to the last third, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. That was brilliant! As it turns out, I had encountered a pretty major hint from an injudicious blog comment, so that put me on to the method pretty early, but it was still a lot of fun drawing a diagram to see if I’d worked it out correctly. And man, that trick was amazing! Definitely one of the most original I’ve encountered. It’s not at all hard to see how this inspired the development of the shin honkaku movement, as the effect must have been magnified by the general lack of fair-play mysteries. I really hope they translate more of Shimada’s works soon. (And if you liked this, you’ll certainly like Murder in the Crooked House, although the trick’s not quite as audacious as this one.)

        (Incidentally, I think that the locked room method in Heikichi Umezawa’s murder is pretty similar to that of the second murder in Carr’s Pnfr bs gur Pbafgnag Fhvpvqrf. I have no clue if that was an actual influence, though.)


  5. I really liked both Shimada novels translated so far. This one has more padding than Crooked House, but he’s always readable. I mean, we aren’t talking about Michael Innes…
    The solution to the other novel is excellent as well and I was close to solving it. Let’s see what you think about it when the time comes. Man, how I wish for more honkaku coming our way…


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