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.