The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

I would gladly give up my wretched life if this perfect woman were to become a reality.

Here’s a challenge to aspiring writers: make the first character your readers meet a lunatic confessional astrologist painter whose last will and testament includes the details of a plot to murder his six virginal daughters and nieces and dismember their bodies in order to create a perfect woman. Give him some creepy backstory–let’s say he tells us about this one time when he literally fell in love with a mannequin in a shop window, and maybe throw in a suggestion of rape when he talks about how he ended up with his second wife. Add a touch of megalomania. Then have the whole thing translated into another language, preferably one with a different alphabet from your own. See how many of your readers are sticking around after all that.

That’s a little unfair on Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, I know; it’s a complicated plot, it’s translated, and of course characters don’t have to be likeable. The book does suffer a little bit from having its prologue delivered through the artist (and first murder victim) Heikichi, though. If you can get through it, you can probably get through the rest, but it’s a bit of a litmus test.

We learn that Heikichi was murdered before he could carry out his horrible scheme–he was found with his head bashed in, inside a locked room–but shortly after his death, his eldest stepdaughter was found dead in what was assumed to be a rape and burglary gone wrong, and then his other six daughters disappeared. Their dismembered bodies were discovered over a period of several months all around Japan’s Hoshu island, arranged just as Heikichi’s note had described. Clearly, someone decided to carry out the plans after Heikichi’s death–but everyone has an alibi and there’s no clear motive. The murders remain unsolved for forty years, until our two intrepid amateur detectives decide to try and crack the case, mostly in order to distract one of them from his chronic depression. The novel is in the honkaku subgenre of Japanese mysteries: you get all the clues in the same order and at the same time as the two detectives, so you can follow along, trying to solve it as they do. Honkaku are kind of like literary sudoku, in that they’re puzzles. You’re engaging not only your narrative brain, but your logical one.

I think mysteries suffer with age, more than other genres. Possibly this is because so many of them deal with crimes against the vulnerable, and the way that we treat victims and think about them has changed so much over the past few decades. This book was written in 1980, and one of the most noticeable things about it is the sheer quantity of bullshit about “female psychology”. There is even the suggestion that the killer must have been a woman because the murder weapon was cleaned off, and that would be “more natural” for a woman to do (because ladies can’t stop themselves from tidying up!) The gender politics when it comes to the actual murders are just as depressing. Our narrator, Ishioka, announces at one point that the murderer must have been a man (he’s changed his mind since the scene mentioned above), because (dun duh duhhhh), “Kazue had been raped!” The response of Kiyoshi, the novel’s Sherlock Holmes character is, literally, “Uhhh…” This, and scenes like it, conspire to suggest that the actual reality of torture, murder, rape and dismemberment doesn’t interest Shimada at all, except insofar as these events can be used to make a good puzzle. I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a matter of personal taste, but that attitude is really, really not for me. I like the idea of murders that are logic puzzles, but I want them to remain logic puzzles. Making truly horrible things happen to someone that you’ve established is a character, not a philosophical construct, just to make your clever-clogs challenge a bit more cryptic, strikes me as being somewhere between distasteful and genuinely psychopathic. As I read, I kept thinking of all the women in literature (especially genre literature) and film and popular culture who have been found chopped up in trash bags, in Satanic rituals, in rivers, in car trunks. And I thought of all the women in real life–the world I live in–who’ve been found the same way. And somehow I couldn’t take quite the innocent joy in a complex mystery that I think I was expected to take.

All the more frustrating, then, that by the middle of the book I was genuinely (if begrudgingly) keen to find out who had done the deeds. The puzzle element of the book works just fine; the solution is clever, although the identity of the murderer is obscurely disappointing, mostly because the motive is so meh. Revenge, revenge, does it ever get old? (Yes. Also, it would have been better had the murderer sought revenge on someone who had legitimately wronged them, as opposed to someone whose primary crime was to be immature and self-centered, but now we’re venturing into spoilers territory.) I was also both fascinated and frustrated by the way some details were explained profusely, while others–fairly important ones–were brushed over. The reason why the bodies were found buried at different depths, for instance, took pages; but when our narrator Ishioka explicitly asks questions like “Where did the poison come from?” and “How did the murderer chop up half a dozen bodies on their own? How did they even get hold of a saw?”, Kiyoshi’s answer was “They just did.” It’s hard not to admire the sheer brazenness of an author who’ll do that to you, but it does feel like a cop-out.

It’s a shame about this, because the book is part of Pushkin’s new Vertigo imprint, and usually Pushkin is absolutely spot on. They’ve already made a name for themselves with translated literary fiction, and moving into translated crime is a brilliant idea. I’m guessing that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is a one-off. I’ve already heard good things about Vertigo, the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s films, and Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, an Austrian novelist. Also, let me emphasize once more that this is entirely my own opinion; just because I have a hard time with novels that feel like diagrams doesn’t mean that everyone does, and as puzzles go, this one is fiendish, complex and probably quite satisfying. It wasn’t for me, but I’d love to have a look at some of the other Vertigo titles and see if one of them is.

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4 thoughts on “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada

  1. My brother is going to read this soon. Someone recommended it to me, for him (was it you? lol I can’t remember, maybe before you read it?) but somehow I think he might like it, despite the things you didn’t like. I don’t really want to read it myself now, though.

  2. I mean, it’s plenty engrossing! I just kept having moments on nearly every page where my stomach sank a little bit, and I’ve learned to trust that feeling when I read, especially when it happens more than once over the course of a book.

  3. I love the idea of Vertigo moving in to translated crime fiction but I’m surprised that you weren’t tempted to add another murder to the list yourself and go after the author.

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