Not only is this book a Guardian Top Ten Locked-Room Mystery and has a solution that is, according to Anthony “Magpie Murders” Horowitz, “one of the most original that I’ve ever read” it is also number 2 on a companion list to Ed Hoch’s 1981 Top 15 Locked Room Mysteries as chosen by Dan from The Reader is Warned and discussed on The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. So when I decided to dip my toes in the waters of the shin honkaku school of mystery writing it was a no-brainer as to where I should start.
In 1936 artist Heikichi Umezawa writes a detailed account of how he will murder the six young women of his household before taking body parts from each of them to create his perfect woman, Azoth. Before he can act on his grotesque plan he is found dead from a blow to the head in his locked studio.
Despite his death, the six women disappear and over the next year their mutilated bodies are discovered around Japan, all according to Heikichi’s insane scheme. Azoth is never found.
Forty-three years later the case remains unsolved by both professionals and amateurs. Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, astrologer and part-time detective, who is unexpectedly presented with new evidence and asked to solve what has previously been impossible. He knows nothing of the affair but his best friend, Kazumi Ishioka, knows absolutely all there is to know because, in his own words:
“I’m a huge fan of mysteries; in fact they’re almost an addiction. If a week goes by without reading a mystery, I suffer withdrawal symptoms. Then I wander around like I’m sleepwalking and wake up in a bookshop, looking for a mystery novel.”*
Kazumi provides Kiyoshi with chapter and verse from the best known book on the subject “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” and they start to throw ideas back and forth. This is my favourite section of the book as on a number of occasions Kiyoshi comes up with some great theories only for Kazumi to respond that they already been thought of and disproved.
We are then provided with the new evidence before the pair travel to Kyoto to try to interview a number of people loosely connected to the case who may be able to help, before a flash of inspiration allows Kiyoshi to see the truth of the matter.
Featuring two floor plans and no fewer than three challenges to the reader, this is a Golden Age style cold-case that fully deserves it much-vaunted reputation – made all the more incredible by the fact that this was Shimada’s first book! There are clear nods to the history of the genre, including two that stood out for me relating to books that I happen to have read in the last couple of months.
The main reason I had held back from reading this was the nature of the murders, being no fan of blood and guts, but I would say you get more explicit gore from the single decapitation in “It Walks by Night” by John Dickson Carr than you do here.
I’ll definitely be getting hold of the recently translated “Murder in the Crooked House” and then hope that someone launches a crowd-funder to get more of Shimada’s work translated.
*Does this remind you of anyone you know?
What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently
Keep It Quite by Richard Hull (1935) – The Whitehall is an unexceptional London club until the day that the most irritating member, Morrison, is found dead in the smaller library. He may have been accidentally poisoned by the chef and to avoid a scandal Ford, the club secretary, persuades the dead man’s doctor and fellow clubman, Anstruther, to proclaim death by natural causes. Life goes back to normal until letters start to arrive from a most unusual blackmailer whose requests become increasingly more bizarre.
The first half is certainly stronger than the second but I found this to be a better book than both The Murder of My Aunt and “Excellent Intentions”.
The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox (1928) – Cousins Derek and Nigel go boating on the Thames and whilst Nigel goes off to Oxford for the day, Derek disappears, presumed drowned. Accident, suicide, murder? Insurance investigator Miles Bredon is really only interested if he is dead, the how and the who don’t necessarily matter to him.
The descriptive prose is laid on a little thick and whist I enjoyed the book to an extent, I think Monsignor Knox is likely to continue to be remembered more for his Decalogue than his novels.