The British-based publisher Pushkin Press launched Vertigo, a new imprint devoted to classic crime and mystery fiction from around the world, in 2015. One of the six works selected for Vertigo’s debut was Soji Shimada’s first novel The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Originally published in Japan in 1981, the novel would become the first book in a series of mysteries featuring Kiyoshi Mitarai. Shimada is an extremely prolific author particularly known for fostering the revitalization of honkaku fiction, a subgenre of Japanese mysteries that I was introduced to through The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, who Shimada mentored. Currently, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is the only major work by Shimada available in English although a few of his short stories have been translated as well. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie, was first released in English in 2004 by IBC Publishing, but that edition has since gone out-of-print. I was very glad to see Vertigo bring the novel back.
In 1936, a set of grisly murders took place in Japan which came to be known as the Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Seven women, sisters and cousins, were found dead, their bodies cut into pieces and buried in remote locations across the country. A letter describing exactly how the women would be killed and dismembered would have made Heikichi Umezawa, their father and uncle, the primary suspect except that he himself had already met an untimely demise behind locked doors. Although over time many popular theories were proposed, the murders of Umezawa and the seven women remained unsolved for more than forty years. In 1979, new evidence came to light which inspired amateur detectives Kazumi Ishioka, a mystery enthusiast, and his close friend Kiyoshi Mitarai, a professional astrologer, to take up the case. Their investigation led them in many different directions as they searched for additional clues, but finally, more than four decades later, the murders are solved.
While there are some wonderful character moments in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, especially between Mitarai and Ishioka—who is the one actually narrating the tale—the novel is much more focused on the details of the crimes and the related investigations than it is on nuanced characterization. Over the course of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Shimada outlines all of the clues needed for the novel’s readers to solve the mystery themselves—they are given the same information that Mitarai and Ishioka have available to work with. In fact, Shimada briefly interrupts the narrative not once but twice, directly addressing and challenging readers to solve the case before Ishioka reveals the solution in the final few chapters. Granted, in addition to crucial hints, Shimada has also included plenty of red herrings to lead readers astray if they are not careful. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders presents a devious intellectual challenge, but it is solvable.
Although the cleverness of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders can be appreciated in its own right, much of my enjoyment of the novel came from directly engaging with the mystery. Readers can simply follow along as Ishioka and Mitarai conduct their investigations, waiting for everything to be disclosed, or they can take up Shimada’s challenge to try to uncover the solution on their own. First, the known facts about the murders are recounted by Ishioka in a fairly straightforward if enthusiastic manner. He then reveals how he and more specifically Mitarai became personally involved with the case, showing how their efforts ultimately led to the closing of a decades-old crime. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is gruesome and shocking, but it’s also engrossing and introduces a likeable and somewhat eccentric investigator in Mitarai. Although The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was Shimada’s debut work, it is still considered by him and by others to be one of his best and I can understand why.