Monday, January 30, 2012



"Gathering all my courage, I'd like to leave those famous words here:
I challenge the reader"
"The Astrology Murder Case"

I think I'll stop my series of reviews of English translated Japanese novels for the moment, but the final one just had to be this novel.

Shimada Souji debuted in 1981 with The Tokyo Zodiac Murder Case (Original title: Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken - "The Astrology Murder Case"). At the time it was not well received that very good with the public, as the novel was quite different from the dominant style at the time. The late seventies - early eighties were the years after the Yokomizo boom, when the social school (usually represented by Matsumoto Seichou) reigned and dry police procedurals were considered the way to go for detective fiction. So what chance did Shimada had with his debut novel, that was a clear homage to the Golden Age detective novels, with an amateur detective who outsmarts the police, with references to great detectives of old like Sherlock Holmes, with its preposterous complex murder plot including a locked room murder and its pretentious Challenge to the Reader?

Luckily, Shimada was not the only writer in Japan who felt an urge to return to the old orthodox detective fiction and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders showed these young writers the possibility of modern orthodox detective novels. Shimda inspired and helped several authors during this important time. Ayatsuji Yukito, whose novels were first marketed as New Orthodox detectives, got his pen-name from Shimada actually, just like Abiko Takemaru. Shimada should thus be considered the driving force behind the New Orthodox detective fiction movement and it all started with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. It is thanks to this novel that I can still enjoy classically structured detective novels complete with locked room mysteries and Challenges to the Readers in this time and age. Thank you.

Oh, and you know, the plot of this book is actually awesome too. The story starts with the will of Umezawa Heikichi, an artist with an obsession with alchemy and astrology. Haunted by the image of Azoth, the perfect woman, he decides to murder his six daughters and nieces and to use their body parts in order to construct Azoth himself. And indeed, 1936 is the year the Umezawa family gets slaughtered, with the bodies (minus the parts used for Azoth) of the poor girls being found all across Japan. Oh, but as we have Umezawa's will, we know he did it right? Well, the problem is that Umezawa was killed, inside a locked room, before any of the girls were murdered. Which makes it somewhat difficult for him to have commited the murders. Or was it? The case became known as the Umezawa astrology murders and while the police and amateur detectives have challenged the case countless of times, it still remains unsolved after 40 years. Until fortune-teller Mitarai Kiyoshi (who occassionally works as a detective) gets hold on a manuscript that brings another light on the case and he declares that he will solve the baffling case within a week.

The main trick behind the novel is simply brilliant and not enough words can exist to praise it. Shimada has a talent for coming up with fantastically grand tricks that surprise the reader because they are just so unbelievable. With most novels, you think 'Oh, that's pretty smart' when you find out what the trick was. With Shimada, it's more like "Wha... WHAT? YOU'VE GOTTA....BUT... AAH, IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW!". As if Shimada is working on a totally different scale than most readers. If the traditional locked room is created with a thread and needle, then Shimada's tools are a gigantic steel wire rope and iron bar and he would still be subtle with them. The grand trick is something typically Shimada and can also be seen in for example his second novel, Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") and the short stories Shissou suru Shisha ("The Running Dead Man"), Yamatakabou no Ikaros ("Icarus with a Bowler Hat") and Aru Kishi no Monogatari ("A Story of a Knight").

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders develops similarly to Ellery Queen's A Study In Terror, as in both stories the detectives are solving a case based solely on old documents. This turns the story in a pure logic puzzle, as it misses the excitement that comes from a case that is developing in the present progressive. More than half the novel consists of old manuscripts and Ishioka telling Mitarai about the case 40 years ago and I have to admit that at times these segments seem to drag on a bit because they are quite dry. Even if quite bloody and messy. In Shimada's second novel, Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, he wisely chose to depict the crime in real-time, which was much more appealing.

Mitarai Kiyoshi (whose name is hilariously written as a clean honorable toilet) is also the first in the long line of amateur detectives in new orthodox detective novels. In good detective fiction tradition, Mitarai starts off the adventure by talking very badly about his literary predecessors and especially Holmes is the victim of Mitarai's foul words. What is even more hilarious is that Shimada actually included a lot of Mitarai's comments about Holmes in his own Holmes pastiche, Souseki to Rondon Miira Satsujin Jiken ("Souseki and the London Mummy Murder Case"). Mitarai is here a fortune-teller with an interest in crime, like in the next novel, but he trades in his occupation to become a private detective in the short story collection Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings"), introducing himself as criminologist with an interest in astrology.

The Challenge to the Reader in this novel really caught on with subsequent authors (who may or may not be new orthodox writers). Even if I limit myself to the writers mentioned in the side bar, you'd have Abiko Takemaru, Amagi Seimaru, Arisugawa Alice, Ayatsuji Yukito, Higashino Keigo, Maya Yutaka, Mitani Kouki, Takemoto Kenji, Yokomizo Seishi who I remember having used explicit Challenges to the Readers in their works (and probably more I forget. And even more writers work with implied Challenges (for example, Aoyama Goushou's stories are almost always structured so that Conan figures out everything at the end of a chapter, while Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu ("Terror of Werewolf Castle") has two implicit Challenges, mirroring the two Challenges presented in Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders).

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of those rare books that is not only amazing at what it was supposed to be (a detective story), but also stands symbol for important changes within the literary history of detective fiction. As such, it is a novel everyone should have read. And this is one of the few recommendations I can make that actually has an English version available!

One note of warning: the second Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo story arc, Ijinkanmura Satsujin Jiken ("The Ijinkanmura Murder Case", published in the US as The Mummy's Curse) plagiarizes the main tricks of this novel. There were quite some troubles surrounding this at the time and all publications nowadays include a clear warning for those who have not read The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (which seems to be missing in the US publication).

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『占星術殺人事件』


  1. I share in your unabashed admiration for this bloody tour-de-force and it should also be acknowledge as a perfect example of a hybrid concoction of the classic, puzzle-oriented mysteries and the more gory contemporary thrillers – which makes this perhaps one of the most impressive debuts from the post-GAD era.

    Now that you're done reviewing English translated Japanese novels, you might want to take a look at one of our own neo-orthodox writers, M.P.O. Books. I think you will appreciate the multi-layered structure and fair-play approach of De laatste kans.

  2. You know, I've looked up that book several times now (though I forget it every time) and my reaction is always "ack, so expensive!". Of course, Dutch books tend to be quite expensive in general until they are sold as Ramsj.

  3. Well, it's a deluxe edition with side flaps and all, but if you don't want to buy it new you can pick up a cheaper, used copy from De Slegte.

  4. can you do me a favor?
    read 五体の積木(岡戸武平, can be found in 恐怖ミステリーBEST15)and see if you think the trick does end up to be the same as in this novel?


    1. I'll keep the title in mind (I see it's also available in other collections), though no idea when/if I'll come to it. It won't be any time soon though, sorry!

      I think I've heard Shimada Souji mention it was indeed similar to his own novel, though I don't know in which context he meant that (trick, or just overall set-up/atmospheree).

    2. even if i got the story, i wont be able to read Japanese.... but yes, i'd heard " it was indeed similar" too and thus got curious....

  5. I'm interested in finding out more about the Kindaichi shounen plagiarism case, because unfortunately for me I read that Kindaichi case before Tokyo Zodiac murders. I can't find any information on this in English, so I would appreciate it very much if you could elaborate. I was hoping to know, for example, was this a big scandal at the time? If this is treated as a case if plagiarism, how did the publisher get away with simply publishing a note of caution rather than removing the work altogether? And did the writer ever get any criticism for doing this with his other stories?

    1. I don't know how big the scandal was at the time, but it included articles (one in which Shimada threatened) with lawsuits published in a literary magazine, and resulted in the fact that reprints nowadays include a note that the story utilizes a trick from the book. Also, the TV drama episode based on this story is not available on home video now. So yeah, there were consequences and I guess 'something' was done, but I doubt we'll ever hear about the details.

      The tricks of a lot of early Kindaichi Shounen stories were thought of by Amagi, Kanari and their editors, and were often 'borrowed' from detective novels. Their stance was that in mystery fiction, it was quite normal that older tricks were re-used and re-applied for new stories. But in this particular example, it was obviously not appreciated by Shimada.

      Regarding publisher: Well, I think the one thing that did help was that both Shimada's book and Kindaichi Shounen are published by Kodansha :P

    2. Ah, so it was actually quite a big deal, just settled out of court.

      The Kindaichi shounen series served as an entrypoint into locked room mysteries for me, so it's a little disheartening to hear that their tricks were repackaged ones.

      Do you think the writers and editors' stance on reusing tricks is something that is shared by Japanese mystery writers in general? I'm curious to know if it's generally accepted as inevitable or if most writers are in fact vehemently against it. I mean, it's understandable that some writers might not do it out of considerations of pride, but do they think that it is in fact not just a matter of pride, but actually unethical to do so?

    3. I wouldn't say Kindaichi Shounen's team's stance is a typical stance shared by mystery writers everywhere, but they have a point, of course. I mean: one can't even guess at how many stories out there 'borrow' from Chesterton's The Invisible Man or The Queer Feet. Idem dito for Christie, Holmes etc. The genre /does/ feature a lot of re-arranging familiar furniture. But in the particular example of the Kindaichi Shounen story, I think most of us will agree it was way too familiar. It borrowed more than just one idea or concept from Shimada's book.

      What you do see in a lot of mystery fiction is that writers acknowledge they are inspired by this and this writer or work (by name-dropping for example), but try to surpass them with a variation of the same trick/idea. People seldom complain about this, because even if it's based on the same basic idea, it at least contains some originality.

    4. Thanks for the explanation, I haven't had much experience with the genre yet to experience rehashes (aside from this one).

      So what you're saying is that 1) repackaging comes in varying degrees on a spectrum ranging from placing a fresh spin on the original trick to outright copying the trick, and that 2) the genre operates on an informal "citation" system where inspiration has to be acknowledged (especially if the repackaging lies near the plagiarism end of the spectrum)?

      When I first read the trick in Kindaichi Shounen, I thought that it was a very clever trick, but I (maybe in retrospect) felt that the way the trick was incorporated into the story and mystery felt really unnatural, so this is a bad case of repackaging on the plagiarism spectrum.

      On the other hand, there was another Kindaichi Shounen mystery I recall, the Hayami Reika kidnapping, that now I realise is vaguely similar to a trick used in Devotion of Suspect X, except this time Kindaichi Shounen changes up pretty much the entire structure of the trick, what it's used for, and the clues/traces it leaves behind, and is therefore a repackaging closer to the "inspiration" side of the spectrum. Or maybe I read too much into it and the resemblance is too vague to make such a claim.

      Anyways I would also like to say that I enjoyed your blog very much. It's very helpful for a reader like me who is interested in Japanese mystery fiction but only knew about Keigo Higashino and Tokuya Higashigawa before this. Cheers for a wonderful blog.

    5. I have to admit I read few other genres, but mystery writers love referencing all the people before them and 'challenge' them. It definitely reminds of how things works in the academic world.

      And glad you like the blog!