The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

Forty years of national speculation couldn’t crack this murder mystery—but two men intend to solve it.

Author info

Soji Shimada (島田 荘司) has written over 100 novels, including several critically acclaimed series. He received the Japan Mystery Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009.

Ross and Shika Mackenzie have translated work as part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project. Their translation of Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders first appeared in 2004.

On February 26, 1939, on a snowy night in Tokyo, an anti-social artist is murdered inside his studio, which is locked from the inside. His body is found the next day, along with evidence of his meticulous plot to butcher six young women—his daughters and nieces who live in the neighbouring house. His plan: slice them up and create Azoth, the perfect woman, an astrology-and alchemy-inspired masterwork he would enthrone at the centre of Japan. In a seemingly unrelated incident, a female family member is murdered days later—but when the six women go missing, and their dismembered bodies turn up in the months after his death, the nation is swept into a decades-long fixation on what comes to be known as the “Tokyo Zodiac Murders.” The case is stone cold in 1979, when two men decide to solve the impossible.

This debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Award, is part of the honkaku (authentic) subgenre of murder mysteries. Unlike psychological thrillers, honkaku novels draw the reader directly into the game with intricate plots and carefully laid clues. Shimada’s novel is all in on the gambit. Multiple charts and illustrations are included for the reader to analyze, and the book is compiled as if it were a nonfiction work.

The protagonists—two amateur detectives living in Tokyo—form a classic Holmes and Watson pairing, and their sometimes competitive, sometimes gentle relationship forms the novel’s secondary narrative thread. The so-called compiler of the case file is freelance illustrator and mystery novel-lover Kazumi Ishioka. Ishioka is an enthusiastic but somewhat clueless sidekick to his best friend Kiyoshi Mitarai, a brilliant, eccentric astrologer with a sarcastic streak. Mitarai’s reputation brings the pair information that the public would kill for, but it’s a clue with the potential for collateral damage, so they must proceed with caution.

The novel is organized like a play, with acts, scenes and a list of dramatis personae, and the reader is also an active character the story. In fact, at two crucial points, Shimada breaks the third wall and speaks directly to the reader. He admits that all the necessary clues have been provided “for the sake of fairness of the game.” But the question is, are you, the reader, up to solving it? Or will you too be “sacrificed at the altar of this mystery”? Your first clue is the Prologue, which is the last will and testament of Heikichi Umezawa, the first victim and would-be killer. Umezawa’s occult obsessions paint a violent picture that may be too twisted for some, but for crime novel junkies, it’s a perfectly evil hook. Act One introduces the two would-be detectives and establishes all the clues available to the public. Because it’s a 40-year retrospective, the first act is exposition-heavy and lacks the tension of mysteries that follow a fresh killer on the loose, but it does establish a sparring sense of friendship between Ishioka and Mitarai, and it provides important keys to unlocking the mystery at hand. Things pick up again in the first Entr’acte, an “intermission” which introduces the reader to sensitive new details. Once the facts have been established the action kicks into high gear in Act Three: the reader is propelled along with the two sleuths as they scramble to solve the case before their secret clue is exposed to the world.

Shimada’s novel is one of the first titles from Pushkin Vertigo, a brand new crime imprint that features mysteries written between the 1920s and the 1970s by international masters of the genre. During its September debut the imprint’s bold cover art—designed by Jamie Keenan— became a source of Twitter controversy: some called the art too hard to read, while others loved the visual mystery. The question is, what do you think, dear reader?

More spine-tinglers from Pushkin Vertigo


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