Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Shimada Soji: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders ( 占星術殺人事件 1981, 改訂完全版 占星術殺人事件 2008)

 "Reader Beware: SPOILERS"

It is with real pleasure that after a long time, I finally manage to publish my review of the first novel by Shimada Soji, after having published reviews of his short stories.
To Soji, who is currently perhaps the most famous detective writer in Japan, undoubtedly his first novel brought a lot of celebrities both at home and abroad. The novel first published in 1981 under the title 占星 殺人 事件 which in Japanese means Astrological Murders, was then republished in 2008 with the title 完全 占星 殺人 事件 which means Full revised version of Astrological Murders.
The novel is divided into several parts: there is an introduction, then the actual novel, which talks about what happened 40 years later, interspersed with Takegoshi Bunjiro's dossier, a challenge from the writer to the reader, the solution and finally the murderer's letter to the detective who found him/her.
In essence, the introduction tells about the crazy project of such a Humezawa Heikichi, an artist more than eclectic. He is sure that a demon controls him, to free himself from his presence and control, he wants to create the perfect woman, Azoth, who will have to reincarnate the mythical queen Hamatasu, and bring Japan back to the golden age. In order for Azoth to be created, he has completed a series of alchemical and zodiacal studies, based on his 4 daughters and 2 nieces, who will have to be killed and their bodies mutilated, so that the parts removed together joined together can form the Azoth creature. In short, a frantic project, aimed not only at the liberation from the demon that pursues it, but also at the glorification of Japan, as Azoth will have to be placed at the center of 13, a number given by the sum of the three lines that cut Japan. The Introduction ends here.
The novel begins when the astrologer Mitarai Kiyoshi, an amateur detective, is asked by another amateur detective who is passionate about thrillers, Ishioka Kazumi, about the solution of the Murders of the Zodiac, dating 40 years before: in practice the alchemist and painter mad Humezawa Heikichi had been killed in his studio, closed from the inside, on the day of February 26, 1936, the day of the failed coup d'etat of a part of the military, led by young officers: he had been found with his skull smashed by something flat, with one leg under the bed, as if that had fallen on him, with the door closed by a heavy horizontal bolt and the windows closed by heavy grates, which can only be released from the inside; outside on the snow two sets of imprints sometimes overlapping, of a man and a woman. His notebook and twelve canvases with astrological subjects had been found (including an unfinished one, whose subject was a female nude whose face was still missing, painted with the help of a model, who never found out who she was). All this did not prevent Heikichi's 4 daughters and 2 nieces all virgins, were killed, as he himself had planned: Tomoko, Yushiko, Akiko, Tokiko; Nobuyo and Reiko, daughters of his brother Yoshio, and that mutilated bodies were hidden where Heikichi had written, that is in mines of chemical elements zodiacally connected to the individual maidens.
Ishioka submits these ritual murders to his friend, as well as the death of Heikichi, also of his daughter Kazue, older than the other girls, and already divorced, killed by a stroke of the pot on the back of the neck, then thoroughly cleaned of blood, and then raped post mortem.
All members of the Umezawa clan had alibis, but then the police on the basis of some clues had arrested his wife Masako, who had always proclaimed her innocence, for the death of her husband, and she then died in prison.
The mutilated bodies had all been found, in places even very distant from each other, in Japan, but three of them, found in late 1936 and early 1937, were almost completely decomposed, also because unlike the others buried in were very shallow, they had been buried more deeply.
Since Kazumi and Kiyoshi cannot find any explanation for the murder of Heikichi and Kazue for the moment, various hypotheses are starting to be considered (moreover already examined years before) but in any case both the place of Azoth is not found.
At this point, here is a surprise: a woman, Iida Masako, daughter of a certain Takegoshi Bunjiro, introduces herself to the two, who tells a story and gives the two of the notes of her father, a police officer who died a few years earlier, in which he confesses he was blackmailed for the murder he did not commit of Kazue, with whom, however, the same evening he had had a sexual intercourse. And to have agreed to bury six women's bodies in remote places in Japan. And then he confessed he realized that he had been probably used by the murderer.
The notes in the hands of Mitarai and Ishioka are requested days later by Masako's brother, also a policeman: Mitarai and Ishioka challenge him within a week they will give him the solution and also the way to rehabilitate his father's memory. They therefore set off in search of Azoth by going to their friend Emoto. Arrived, the two friends carry out separate investigations: that from Ishioka traces the fortune teller Yoshida Shusai who tells him about how Yakusawa, a friend of Heikichi, was convinced that Azoth was in Meiji-Mura, a recreated ancient Japanese city and how he thought erroneously that such a Umeda Hachiro was actually Umezawa Heikichi. Ishioka when he contacts Mitarai, who for days has been nowhere to be found, finds him in a pitiful state, since for some days he has not eaten, washed, shaved, worn the same clothes. But it is Ishioka's hint at a ten thousand yen banknote, patched with scotch tape, to make everyone understand about the murders of Azoth to Mitarai, and to make him find out who the murderer is.
He will return it to his astonished friend after going with Arashiyama, and introducing him to the murderer of Heikichi, Kazue, and Heikichi's six daughters and nieces. This will be followed by an explanation in front of Messrs IIda, and the bonfire of Takegoshi Bunjiro's notes, to pay homage to him and prevent his son, a policeman, from being dishonored post mortem. The last act of the story will be the explanation, written by the assassin, written before to die, about the last details of the story.
I find myself for the first time in my life talking about a novel of absolute value, which transcends traditional crime literature. In truth, the best presentation that is normally made of this novel, is the Guardian ranking which years ago put The Tokyo Zodiac Murders in second place in a ranking of the best Locked Rooms ever (the first is Carr's The Hollow Man, the third La Septième hypothèse by Halter). But I have always said that these classifications leave the time they find, because having been published one by the Guardian which is a famous English newspaper, it does not necessarily make it better than others, especially since you should also see what the editor of the same , Adrian McKinty, writer yes, but student we don't know what he read, considering that we are talking about a classification of Locked Rooms.
Therefore, to be honest, if I had been to express an opinion about the basis of the originality of the solution of the Locked Room, I would not have put this novel in such a ranking. And why? Because the solution is essentially the sum of two gimmicks, the first of which, varied, it’s in Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides, while the second is Gaston Boca's old trick, also suitably varied in this case. So ... nothing original
But if instead I had to express an opinion about the plot of the work as a whole, I would struggle a lot to find one of equal power, genius, visionary, rigor and solution, and indeed in police literature I would find little to compare it. In the context of police works, this is one of the most beautiful ever, which I have read so far. That would even leave Carr stunned. A novel that leaves you satisfied when you finish it. That leaves you something inside. That makes you say: "Wow, what a beautiful novel!". In short .. an absolute masterpiece. Although I would not put this Soji novel in a locked room classification: if anything, I could put it in any crime novel ranking paired with Rawson's Death from a Top Hat, behind Carr (behind The Hollow Man paired with The Judas Window). The reason is soon said: the two Carr's novels are excellent novels with excellent atmospheres and in addition they have crimes that are impossible out of human understanding, resolved brilliantly. Soji's novel is a novel with a locked room which is the result of two already known, suitably varied gimmicks put together, but it is also a novel of a unique power and vision, superior in my opinion to many Carr : therefore it deserves to be in second place, on a par with the masterpiece by Clayton Rawson, which has 2 impossible locked room of equal value of the two by Carr previously mentioned, but as a novel it lacks an enveloping atmosphere being rather cold.
If we were to analyze it in its structure we would say that the plot includes an introduction and three distinct subplots: Locked Room, Kazue Murder, Azoth Murders. The former remains unsolved and is no longer discussed for the time being; the second is also analyzed and this in essence is resolved as the Locked Room at the end; finally there are the murders of Azoth which comprise a large part of the novel, which in turn split into Ishioka's and Mitarai's conjectures, before after the challenge to the reader (Shimada proves that he understood the lesson from Ellery Queen) you get to frame and say the name of the murderer who leaves the reader astonished for a moment, because he is not in the list of characters (many) of the novel and then you understand that it is the pseudonym of someone who is instead very present.
I must say in all sincerity that I was able to understand the reasoning and the trick of Kazue's murder before it was revealed, but all the reasoning behind Azoth's six murders goes beyond human understanding. It is pure genius. It would almost make me exclaim like Robert Schumann who reviewed the variations on Là ci darem la mano by Chopin, from Mozart's Don Giovanni: "Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie". And to tie it to the banknote scam is pure flair.
Probably the Japanese tendency to imagine granguignolesque scenes or beheadings, is a consequence of their history and traditions and beliefs, according to which life is present in the blood. Here, however, mutilation is not an end in itself but has a double meaning: a declared meaning (create Azoth), and a hidden one, which is essential for the solution, and I would say absolutely brilliant.
I also want to make a note on the structure of the novel: although there is the Locked Room at the beginning, then the murder of Kazue, and finally the murders of Azoth, this novel is remembered, I must say absolutely and undeservedly, only for the Locked Room , while it should be more for all the rest. The structure of the novel reminded me of Alan Thomas' Death of Lawrence Vining: coincidentally another novel with Locked Room. However, that novel rests only on the Locked Room, absolutely spectacular, unlike this novel, which also has something else; however in one thing, they are similar: after the Locked Room which is at the beginning, the novel takes a whole other turn - there are all the speeches that have nothing to do with the problem of murder but tend to mislead the reader; here, the structure is similar, because after the Locked Room, we no longer hear about it, but above all we talk about the murders of Azoth which also enter the final solution, and then, as in Thomas' previous novel, in the end, here the discussion about the Locked Room is resumed, with the solution. Be careful, however: even in Shimada's novel, several things dealt with have no bearing on the solution: I do not say what they are, but the reader at the end of the book will understand that he should have given importance only to some, and that others could have fly over them because they only serve to throw smoke in the eyes.
Mitarai is a great detective (he will be the protagonist of many other novels and also of lightning short stories), but also the murderer is a great character, with a great stature: his crimes come from afar, they are the result of a thirst for revenge that is motivated by a series of abuses and harassment to which he was subjected by those who were later killed and therefore in essence, despite the horror of the slaughter for which he is responsible, perhaps the murderer is less responsible for his victims, and therefore the note with which the novel ends, with the death of the person in charge of everything, it is not of satisfaction if the murderer had been an absolutely evil character, but instead is melancholic.

Pietro De Palma


  1. I read the prologue not too long ago, very unsettling in a psychological type of way. I'm expecting great things from the rest.

  2. Scary.
    I dont prefer to read scary books.
    Im a NDEr.
    Wanna follow?

  3. Splendido libro, l'omicidio dietro porte chiuse è la parte meno interessante per me.