Unlocking The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

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In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler dismisses Sherlock Holmes as “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” Chandler’s criticism stems from a larger argument about what he characterizes as the implausible and illogical nature of the classic detective story. This judgment notwithstanding, Conan Doyle’s creation has irrefutably inspired scads of continuation stories, revisionist novels, adaptations, and pastiches. As such, Holmes’s attitude is now one of the most recognizable tropes of detective fiction.

How, then, does the Sherlock figure translate when taken out of 19th-century Bohemia and resituated in 1979 Japan in Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders? Despite its overt homage to Conan Doyle, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally published in 1981; reissued in 2015 by Pushkin Vertigo) is no mere recasting of Holmes and Watson as Kiyoshi Mitarai and Kazumi Ishioka. Rather, by blending the intellectual puzzle of the locked-room mystery with an arcane mysticism and a self-reflexive narrative, Shimada creates a unique form of logic problem known in Japan as shin honkaku, or new orthodox, mystery.

While the subject of the novel hearkens to Golden Age detective fiction, as Kiyoshi and Kazumi attempt to piece together the events that led to the murder of artist Heikichi Umezawa and his six daughters and stepdaughters, Shimada’s form embraces Chandler’s criticism of the detective story as unrealistic by conducting an exercise in postmodernity. From the listing of the dramatis personae to the foreword in which Kazumi posits the book as a factual recounting of his own investigation with Kiyoshi, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders winks knowingly at the reader, daring one to be perceptive enough to read between the lines and unravel the mystery before the solution is revealed. As Kazumi is an avid reader of mysteries, his numerous allusions to the detective tradition create a rich intertextuality for the reader, while diagrams, charts, and maps mimic the feel of an actual investigation.

A prologue serves as the last will and testament of Umezawa, in which he claims to have been possessed by a devil that tempts him to build the perfect woman from the body parts of six virgins with different zodiac signs. Some readers may find the prologue’s 40-page length and dense alchemical language off-putting, but it is crucial for laying out the problem of both Umezawa’s death, as he is found alone in his studio, the door locked from within, and the six murders that Kiyoshi and Kazumi aim to solve.

Their subsequent investigation unfolds in a five-act format that appeals to an elementary knowledge of dramatic structure while calling attention to the artificial construction of narrative. Further collapsing the illusion of realism are two entr’acts in which Shimada himself interrupts the narrative to taunt the reader’s deductive powers, for if all necessary clues have been so clearly provided, then why do questions still remain? Even after the murderer is named in the falling action of Act IV, Shimada still tasks the reader to deduce the identity and motive for the killer’s actions before Act V’s resolution.

As an impossible solution novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is designed to stymie the reader, and some who view it in low regard may be tempted to attribute their disfavor to translation issues, either literal or cultural. The reception of the novel, though, is a problem not of translation but of preference. Dedicated readers of Golden Age detective stories will appreciate The Tokyo Zodiac Murders’ take on deductive reasoning tales, delighting in its allusions to and metacommentary on the conventions of the genre, while those who favor the Chandlerian realism of hardboiled detective fiction may be frustrated by the novel’s pacing and misdirection. In its playful displacement of a realistic presentation, however, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders shows the game of intellectual puzzle literature, now reinvented and reinvigorated, is ever afoot.

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