Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Mistletoe Mystery

「世界は一つ 東京オリンピック」

"One world - The Tokyo Olympics"
Slogan of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Came across a lot of familiar sights in this novel! Not only the main setting (more details below), but a fair amount of the story is also set in Takaragaike, which was right behind my dorm when I was studying in Kyoto, and I went there at least once a week as they had a nice and large used book store there!

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The Locked Room of the Tori'i - The One Santa Claus In This World") [2018] 

If you have ever visited the city of Kyoto, it's likely you also wandered around the streets between Sanjo-Kawaramachi and Shijo-Kawaramachi, as that's the main shopping area of the city, with plenty of shopping arcades, department stores and even markets to be found here. It's almost always quite busy here, especially near Nishiki Market, where you can find many of the local food and goods. If you walk down Nishiki Market towards the river-side of the shopping area, you'll eventually stumble upon a weird sight: in the covered shopping area stands a tori'i shrine gate, wedged between a hamburger chain restaurant and a boutique selling used clothes and accessories. This tori'i gate indicates the entrance to the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, located right in the middle of the shopping area. The shrine was obviously here long before the shops and restaurants came and in their attempt to maximize the use of the ground, something unique happened. The Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine tori'i gate is not just wedged tightly between two buildings: it actually penatrates them. If you go to the second floor of either building, you'll find a piece of the tori'i gate sticking out of the wall into the room.

In the year of 1975, Mitarai Kiyoshi was still a student of Kyoto University and in an earlier novel, he became friends with Satoru, a graduated high school student who was still studying for the entrance exams of Kyoto University. Satoru tells Mitarai about Kaede, a girl he knows from his cram school, who had both a horrible and wonderful experience eleven years ago, when she was still an eight-year old girl who lived in one of the buildings flanking the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine tori'i gate. It was on Christmas morning 1964, that she received her very first Christmas present from Santa, who even left a letter telling her sorry he had not come earlier. Jumping out of her room with her present in her arms, she found her aunt waiting for her and after a short talk, they both left for her aunt's home. What eight-year old Kaede didn't know at the time was that her mother was lying dead on the first floor, and that her father had committed suicide that morning jumping in front of the first train. Before her father died, he had called his sister to take care of Kaede and make sure she wouldn't see her mother's body. However, the police soon realizes there's something strange going on with this murder: all the doors and windows on both floors were locked tightly from the inside, and the only keys to the home were in the possession of Kaede's mother. Not even Kaede's father could've come inside, as her mother had kicked her husband out in preparation of divorce. Yet Kaede's mother was  strangled (ruling out suicide) by someone who must've come inside the house. And there's proof that at there was at least one intruder in the house on Christmas Eve, as Kaede's present most definitely did not come from her parents, so Santa Claus must've gotten inside the house some way to leave her a present. A suspect for the murder of Kaede's mother has been held in custody for eleven years now, even though Kaede does not believe that man did it, and having heard the story, Mitarai too decides to put his mind to the mystery of Santa Claus and a murderer intruding her house in Shimada Souji's Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The Locked Room of the Tori'i - The One Santa Claus in This World", 2018).

Shimada Souji has been writing for a long time about his detective character Mitarai Kiyoshi. The character first appeared in 1981's Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) and since then, we have seen him appear in many novels and short stories. 2016's Okujou no Douketachi (later retitled as Okujou) for example was the fiftieth story featuring Mitarai. We have seen Mitarai in various phases of his life across these stories: he has solved mysteries when he was a just a wee li'l lad, but his resume also includes astrologist, private detective and university professor in neurology. Shimada's latest novel with Mitarai is set in his student days, long before he met his usual Watson/chronicler Ishioka, so the narration is this time reserved for his younger friend Satoru, whom he first met in Mitarai Kiyoshi to Shinshindou Coffee ("Mitarai Kiyoshi and the Coffee of Shinshindo").

I remember I found Okujou no Douketachi to feature an interesting idea, but that it didn't really work as a full-length novel: it had to twist and turn itself to accomodate for everything it wanted to do to approach novel-length, while in my opinion, it would've worked better in a simpler, but more focused approach. Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus is somewhat interesting in that regard, as Shimada wrote both a novel-length version, but also a short story version of the same story. Originally, Shimada wrote the short story Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The One Santa Claus In This World") especially for the 2018 anthology Kagi no Kakatta Heya ("The Locked Rooms"). Eventually, he decided to also extend this story into a full novel. Both versions were basically published at the same time: the anthology Kagi no Kakatta Heya was released on August 29, 2018, followed by Tori'i no Misshitsu the very next day!

As you read Tori'i no Misshitsu, it's pretty obvious to notice how this originally started as a short story, as in the end, all the mysteries presented in this book revolve around one concept, but unlike Okujou no Douketachi, I'd say Shimada really succeeded in making this one cohesive novel with everything tying nicely together, rather than just a series of very unlikely coincidences. Throughout the book, you are presented with various mysteries set in the ancient capital Kyoto: from a girl who says she saw monkeys moving the pendulum of an old grandfather clock and a series of nightmares haunting the inhabitants of a building, to the murder on Kaede's mother, as well as the mystery of how Santa Claus entered the house that fateful Christmas Eve. What makes this work is that these mysteries are all connectedly through one base idea, and it's by solving one of these mysteries that Mitarai instantly realizes the truth behind every other puzzling incident. I'd say that the basic idea might not be extremely original, but Shimada does show his experience as a novelist here by spinning a more than amusing yarn by incorporating all these variations on the underlying concept. The main mystery of the locked room murder in particular makes wonderful use of its unique setting in Kyoto. I myself have seen that tori'i of the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine countless of times while shopping there, and I have even eaten once at the hamburger chain that is now inhabiting the building on one side of the gate, but I never really gave the shrine entrance that much thought besides "oh, that looks neat", so it's pretty funny to see that particular part of Kyoto used as the setting of a locked room mystery.

Picture (C) Hidehiro Komatsu

I have not read the short story version of this tale so I can't comment on the exact differences between the two versions, but I assume that much of the background story is exclusive to the novel version: a substantial part of the novel is not told from Mitarai and Satoru's point of view, but as a flashback to 1964 from the point of view of one of the other characters, which also delves a lot into character backgrounds etcetera, and my guess would be that most of this was added to the novel, with the short story focusing more on the core puzzle plot of the locked room murder and how Santa Claus entered the house.

By the way, I thought it funny how this novel feels 'kinda' timely. I mean, the last day of August isn't really the day before Christmas, but assuming you don't buy this book day one, it's certainly close by, and the Tokyo Olymics are also often referred too in this novel. The first Tokyo Olympics, mind you, not the upcoming.

Even though I prefer the short story form in general, and I could also definitely tell this story would've worked as well in that form, I found Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus to be quite amusing as a well-structured and plotted locked room mystery. No, this is not one of those grand impossible crime stories like the earlier Mitarai stories with some mind-blowing trick behind them, but as a cute Christmas story set in a rather unique corner of Kyoto, this book gets my thumbs up.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『鳥居の密室 世界にただひとりのサンタクロース』


  1. When reading this review I was a little disappointed this story was just a cute christmas story with no grand trick. But then I recalled the below interview with shimada where it looked like he'd been having a miserable time trying to surpass the zodiac murders, but finally learned to be proud of his work.

    It's nice to see that he's coming to peace with zodiac, that he can just enjoy himself and that he no longer feels pressured to one-up himself with grand tricks (to the reader's detriment maybe lol)

    1. I definitely prefer the grand tricks of the earlier stories (where even the short stories could take on epic scale), but I can understand why he himself would feel the pressure if every single work is compared to that. That said, I haven't read that many of the post-2000 Mitarais mind you, but of those I've read, Tori'i no Misshitsu was the most entertaining, I thought.