While I enjoy watching mystery films, I’ve never felt that Golden Age style fair play mysteries translate particularly well to the screen. The stories are all about these subtle moments and clues that stand out in retrospect when encountered on the page, but just get lost in the background when presented on film. I watch the Agatha Christie adaptations with friends, and I’m screaming in my mind “you glanced away while the maid was setting down the coffee cup in the background of the shot!!!!!!” Either that, or the camera pans in on the coffee cup on the sideboard while an ominous chord sounds, and then why even bother…
But although my beloved novels would probably fall flat as movies, I’ve always thought of particular scenes that I’d love to see captured on film. My number one is the murder scene in The Judas Window – a solution that many deride for being overly complex, yet I think would play out as stunningly simple on screen. There’s also the murder scene in The Problem of the Green Capsule, which if done right could be horrifically creepy, and of course the point of that book is that witnesses perceive the same exact events differently, so why not make the audience a part of that?
Anyway, throw that all aside, because if there’s one scene in any mystery novel that deserves to be captured on screen, it’s the solution to the core crime in Murder in the Crooked House. Well, there are three locked room murders in that book, but if you’ve read it you no doubt know which one I’m referring to. And if you haven’t, well, believe me, it would be amazing; an off the wall scene for the ages, capturing perfectly the audacity of Soji Shimada in throwing down this gauntlet of impossible crime mayhem.
The story unfolds in an architectural monstrosity named Ice Flow Mansion. The house was built with a five degree slope to it – basically a mansion-sized version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa – and in true form is accompanied by its own sloping tower. The owner of the house lives at the top of the tower, but the tower itself has no stairs. The living quarters can only be accessed via a draw bridge lowered from the upper floor of the mansion.
Yeah, it’s a bit wild and confusing, but there’s a map that pieces it all together. And damned if I didn’t consult that map at least 100 times while reading Murder in the Crooked House (pro-tip, it’s a good place to stash your bookmark). The map is so important because we get three locked room murders, all in different parts of the house, and you’re playing mental gymnastics trying to figure out how the crimes could have been pulled off and where various characters were while the crimes were committed.
The master of Ice Flow Mansion has invited some wealthy friends to spend the weekend, which gives us a cast of thirteen to play suspect and victim. The first to die seems to be an odd choice when it comes to motive: the chauffeur of one of the guests is found tied to his bed and stabbed to death. The room that he was staying in is thoroughly locked and accessible only from outside of the house. Not only do we have a locked room murder, but an overnight snow storm has left an untouched blanket of snow, and we know that the snow stopped falling before the murder was committed. So we not only have the question of how the killer got in and out of the room, but how they managed to leave no footprints upon their exit.
The police show up, and end up as puzzled as I was. As with the best of Japanese impossible crime novels, the investigators go through great lengths to explore how the crimes could have been committed, and we’re offered a number of theories that all end up getting shot down. This, of course, is my bread and butter as an impossible crime fan, and I was eating it up. To top it off, the book is extremely readable; the translation is so natural that you would swear that the story was originally written in English. A definite step up from other translations that I’ve read, and a promising sign given that the same person (Louise Heal Kawai) provided translations for some of the Seishi Yokomizo novels that Pushkin Vertigo has been publishing recently but I’ve yet to read.
There are two more locked room stabbings spread throughout the rest of the book, and each is air tight. The murders occur in different sections of the mansion (flips back to the map…) which varies the puzzle as you try to figure out how it could have been pulled off. In each case, there is strong evidence that the killer was inside the room while committing the crime, which rules out hidden traps and other gimmicks. In fact, the police straight up disassemble the crime scenes in an effort to find any hidden entrances.
It’s an impossible crime lovers dream, but of course, it’s not just the setups that matter but the solutions as well. And here, Soji Shimada is a master. The solutions had me absolutely kicking myself. Both the first and the second murder invoked what I’ll call a “It Walks By Night moment”, where upon learning the solution I flipped back and looked at the map (the one I had looked at 100 times already) and smacked my forehead. The absolute beautiful simplicity of the trick to the first murder still gets me, and it’s such a fine example of a solution staring you in the face but you don’t consider the one detail that snaps it all together.
And then, of course, is the solution to the second murder: a solution that I can only pray gets captured on film one day by a decent director. It’s that Paul Halter-esque bravado – shoot, it goes beyond Paul Halter. It’s Soji Shimada-esque bravado, because he pulled off just as big of a whopper already in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders: a solution that will live on in infamy every bit as much as the solution to Death of Jezebel.
So, if you couldn’t tell already, someone needs to publish some more English translations of Soji Shimada, and let’s use the same translator while we’re at it. I’d buy them without so much as reading a blurb about them.