THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS by Soji Shimada, Book Review

Soji Shimada’s 1981 literary debut The Tokyo Zodiac Murders now in translation.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders Soji ShamadaThe Tokyo Zodiac Murders Synopsis:

Japan, 1936. An old eccentric artist living with seven women has been found dead – in a room locked from the inside. His diaries reveal alchemy, astrology and a complicated plan to kill all seven women. Shortly afterwards, the plan is carried out: the women are found dismembered and buried across rural Japan.

By 1979, these Tokyo Zodiac Murders have been obsessing a nation for decades, but not one of them has been solved. A mystery-obsessed illustrator and a talented astrologer set off around the country – and you follow, carrying the enigma of the Zodiac murderer through madness, missed leads and magic tricks. You have all the clues, but can you solve the mystery before they do?

Translated from Japanese by Ross and Shika MacKenzie

(Pushkin Press)

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While I’ve not read a huge amount of Japanese literature, what I have read I have always found compelling — the culture so distinctive and pervasive in character interactions, and the narratives often introspective and philosophical. What spurs me on is generally the question, ‘Where is the author going with this storyline?’ Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was a little different from what I’d come to expect.

According to the publisher of this translation, Pushkin Press

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders belongs to the popular Japanese honkaku, “orthodox” or “authentic”, subgenre a of murder mysteries. Unlike psychological thrillers, honkaku books focus on plotting and clues. The reader is not deceived by the author but actively drawn into the writing and encouraged to participate in the solving of the mystery. These “pure” mysteries also stay away from social criticism, drawing their inspiration from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe

Now I love a good puzzle, and do not mind being addressed directly by omnipotent narrators, but based on my reaction to this novel I’ve clearly come to enjoy ‘being deceived’ by the author or at least being ‘psychologically’ engaged also.

I have great admiration for the complexity of this mysterious crime (and elegance of its solution) – so much so that I found myself explaining it to colleagues. As far as the reading experience itself though, I found the prose relatively utilitarian and I failed to really engage with the lead characters. Whether that is due in part to the translation or simply what’s intended for this subgenre, I’m unable to say.

We’re all struggling so hard, heading in the wrong direction. All our efforts are in vain, Kazumi. They come to nothing! Our pleasure, our sorrow, our anger—it all comes and goes like a typhoon or a squall or cherry blossoms. We are all being pushed by our petty feelings and carried away to the same place. None of us can resist it. Do whatever you think is idealistic? But it’s not! It’s just petty! We only end up knowing that our efforts were in vain!

I appear to be in the minority having such reservations though, evidenced by recent glowing reviews from several respected readers (links provided below) and the fact that Soji Shimada has gone on to publish more than two dozen novels featuring this novel’s sleuth Kiyoshi Mitarai in Japan.

So if you enjoy your mysteries low on emotion and high on detail, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders could well be the puzzle for you.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5  — Overall 3.25

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Genre: Crime-Detective, Mystery, Translation

About the Author, Soji Shimada

Born in 1948 in Hiroshima prefecture, Soji Shimada has been dubbed the ‘God of Mystery’ by international audiences. A novelist, essayist and short-story writer, he made his literary debut in 1981 with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, which was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Blending classical detective fiction with grisly violence and elements of the occult, he has gone on to publish several highly acclaimed series of mystery fiction, including the casebooks of Kiyoshi Mitarai and Takeshi Yoshiki. He is the author of 100+ works in total.

In 2009 Shimada received the prestigious Japan Mystery Literature Award in recognition of his life’s work.

Other reviews of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Goodreads, AustCrimeFiction ; We Love This Book ; The Locked Room Mystery