Murder in the Crooked House – Soji Shimada (1982)

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.

9 thoughts on “Murder in the Crooked House – Soji Shimada (1982)”

  1. The solution of which you speak is wild and would look amazing on screen — that much I won’t contest. Overall, though, I couldn’t get on board with this one; as you say, the translation is superb, and it was the sheer readability of the prose that pulled me through rather than the narrative.

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      1. Yes; if you can find it, I think ‘The Running Dead’ is something of a masterpiece. I would, however, also be at the front of the queue for another novel translation 🙂

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  2. I do think the Golden Age-style, fair play mystery can be translated to the screen and can even be used to improve on their original weaknesses, because you can show in seconds what can take several pages to show or explain. It can also make complicated plots and tricks appear more convincing than they on paper.

    For example, Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage has an original take on the no-footprints impossibility, but the trick is complicated and not wholly convincing. Now imagine if you could see the slightly amused, but clueless, expression on the victim’s face. You’re more willing to go along with it when you see it with your own eyes instead of reading about it. Just one problem. You really need people working on it who understand the Golden Age detective story. A good example is the 1978 movie adaptation of Christie’s Death on the Nile, which should have been an unmitigated disaster, but the screenplay was written by a mystery fan and writer, Anthony Shaffer – who ensured the movie retained everything that made the story a classic. So even the colossal miscasting of Ustinov as Poirot, Lansbury hamming up her performance and the changes to the plot and characters were unable to sink it. Now compare it to the horrendous David Suchet adaptation. So it can be done!

    I second your call for more Soji Shimada translations.

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    1. The Problem of the Wire Cage did cross my mind as I was thinking through scenes that would benefit from being captured on film. It’s also one of the impossibilities that I think would really have a visual impact, as the lack of footprints would stand out a bit better than the air tightness of a locked room.

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  3. I was not hugely into this one myself – I liked some of the descriptions of the house and location, but the characters were flat and the mystery plot somewhat ridiculous. Surely with the solution premise being the thing it is, you could make something grand or epic (in the traditional sense) out of it; in fact that’s the only way you’d get away with it being so ridiculous. That said, totally with you on filming it. I’m thinking a POV shot following a certain object as the crime is committed.
    Also I find the detective infuriating – I read this one before Zodiac, and in fact he’s more obnoxious here. It turns out I hate it when (ROT13) Gur qrgrpgvir gheaf hc xabjvat rirelguvat sebz gur fgneg. Naq V ungr vg rira zber jura n ybpxrq ebbz zheqre gheaf bhg gb or n purng crecrgengrq ol gur qrgrpgvir jvgubhg bhe xabjyrqtr.
    Sorry – I don’t actually like turning up to criticise something after the blogger really likes it, but it just seems to happen fairly often with these shin-honkaku style mysteries… I did like The Running Dead quite a bit.

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  4. Lately, I have been thinking about what tools we can use to make mechanical locked room tricks easier to understand. Even with diagrams in novels, sometimes it is still difficult to comprehend. Visual media such as movies, manga, and video games have the advantages. Out of those three, I think video game is the best medium. It is hard to try to solve along the mysteries while watching a movie since you have to rewind the film to review the necessary evidence. That is not a problem in manga, but mechanical tricks involving movement are sometimes hard to portray in still drawing. In video games such as ‘Ace Attorney’ and ‘Danganronpa,’ you can review any evidence anytime you want, so that is no problem. However, a video game is not as accessible and costlier to make than novels.

    I can think of some ways to make locked room tricks easier to understand in a mystery novel. Martin Edwards discussed a Chinese mystery novel called ‘The Lost Winner’ by Fei Wu. Along with the book, the author included a papercraft model of the crime scene, which the reader can make. He also included other physical clues such as maps, etc. I think it is a pretty cool idea, and the models can be used as a cool display item. Japanese children’s magazines such as Youchien often included high-quality and elaborate papercraft models (e.g., working ATM, crane game machine, vending machine) at a cheap price, so I think it can be done. However, another solution that might be more feasible is to include QR codes in the novels, linking to a 3D floor plan. I think it is a pretty nice solution; not only does it make it easier to visualize tricks, but you also do not have to flip pages back to review information such as character lists and maps. I hope things like this can be integrated more frequently in the future. Anyways, thanks for the review, and sorry for the ramblings.

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