Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

The Man with the Black Cord by Auguste Groner, translated by Grace Isabel Colbron

Book Details

Originally published in 1908 as Die schwarze Schnur, English translation published in 1911.
Part of the Detective Muller series.

Author originally credited as Augusta Groner on English language translation.

The English language translation of this work is in the Public Domain and a digitized copy is available through Hathi Trust.

Plot Summary

A rich man disappears from within a suite of rooms that have been locked from the inside and no trace of him can be found except a half-melted candle and a short but cryptic note. The windows are barred and there are no secret passages into the room, stumping the police.

Frontispiece by Phil Sawyer from 1911 Duffield and Co. edition

The Verdict

Not exactly what I expected or hoped for but this adventure story is still quite readable, if a little slow.


My Thoughts

During the Summer I decided that my crime and mystery reference library needed some further development. To that end I purchased a number of reference books and guides including the recent Locked Room International reissue of Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders (and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement). I have made scant use of these tomes so far, perhaps because I have not read as many impossible crime stories as usual since purchasing them, but I found myself browsing them for ideas earlier this week as I tried to find inspiration for my next locked room read.

The Man with the Black Cord jumped out at me for a number of reasons. I was intrigued by its premise of a man disappearing from within a locked room, the nationality of its author (I had yet to review an Austrian crime novel) and its year of publication. Perhaps most of all though I was interested to discover that I seemed to be unable to find a review of the book on any of my favorite impossible crime speciality blogs. Always keen to fill in some of the blanks, I decided to track down a copy to see whether I had uncovered some lost classic.

Leopold Erlach is the miserly owner of the Green House, a small but imposing mansion in Austria. He lives alone in the house except for his housekeeper but maintains a rigid routine. When he fails to arrive for breakfast his housekeeper is worried and after waiting a short while, investigates only to find his bedroom door and study locked from the inside and no response from within. With the assistance of a locksmith they are able to enter the rooms but find them empty except for a half-burned candle on a desk near the barred window and an open work of ancient history with three words from the text underlined: He – was – here.

Leopold has only one close relative – Lt. Paul Erlach who lives in Vienna. While Paul will inherit the estate, it will take thirty years unless a body is found. That does not prevent him receiving a suggestive letter pointing out his good fortune which he takes to the police. Having reached a dead end, they suggest he hire Joseph Muller, a former policeman turned private investigator, to see if he can discover what has happened to Uncle Leopold.

I think the opening chapters to this book are very effective. Groner lays out the circumstances leading up to the discovery of the disappearance well and does a pretty good job of covering the different ways that the room was secure, although I was not clear on how they were certain that the room had been locked from the inside until the detective summarizes everything at the end (for the record: the only set of keys are inside the locked room).

I also enjoyed the chapter in which Muller is approached to accept the case. We quickly learn that he is both diligent and highly observant as well as seeing that he has some strong people skills, reassuring reluctant witnesses to share what they know. We also learn of his softness and empathy – traits that made it impossible for him to work within the stricter notions of justice pursued by the police force. The result is a character that combines the professional know-how of the formally-trained detective with the informality of the amateur detective. I liked Muller a lot and I would not object to trying other stories featuring the character in the future.

Unfortunately having established an interesting scenario in the first few chapters, the book then headed in a direction that I had not expected. Much of what follows plays out in the style of an adventure or thriller, albeit quite a gentle one, and there is next to no consideration of the locked room puzzle at all. In fact, I can only think of one sequence prior to the explanation in which the matter is looked at or discussed in any detail meaning that there is little sense of discovery. This was a disappointment given the impossibility was the aspect of the story that drew me to it.

I think that the explanation as to what happened seemed to make sense, although I am not sure that every aspect of the room was described in enough detail that the reader could recognize how it might work. I did guess it, though I think that was based on the relative simplicity of the crime scene and having encountered variations on this idea elsewhere. It is a solid, if pretty simple, early example of a locked room story. Just be aware that it does not feature much in the body of the work to avoid disappointment.

The bigger issue for me in the midsection of the novel was its pacing which struck me as quite slow. While I appreciated the way this part of the book seems to increase the scope and scale of the story, I felt that this section of the book lacked the sense of discovery found in the first few chapters of the investigation while I also felt that the decision to have Muller adopt a false identity to go undercover came a little too early for me, coming before I felt I really knew him fully.

The final few chapters of the novel are much tighter and contain much of the explanation of what took place. The clues are generally quite well distributed even if a very small number of physical attributes of the room in which the disappearance occurred could have been more thoroughly described. In most other respects however I think that the ending answered most of my questions and provided a solid explanation for the strange events.

Sadly The Man with the Black Cord was not the forgotten masterpiece I had hoped it would be but that does not mean it is without merit, particularly given the age of the work. The Austrian setting is interesting, as is the central problem at the heart of the story. If you come to this expecting a slower pace of storytelling along with the occasional sensational plot development, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Book Details

Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤
English language translation published in 2020
Prior to the release of the translation this book’s title was more often translated as Seven Years of Night and the film adaptation had a limited release in the US under that title.

The Blurb

A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.

At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.

When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.

For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.

The Verdict

This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.


My Thoughts

Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.

We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.

Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.

Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.

I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.

There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.

The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.

The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.

The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.

I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.

I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…

Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published as 告白 in 2008
English language translation published in 2014

The Blurb

HER PUPILS KILLED HER DAUGHTER.
NOW, SHE WILL HAVE HER REVENGE.

After calling off her engagement in wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.

But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.

The Verdict

A powerful, fascinating and utterly devastating read. The subject matter is much darker than I typically like but it is handled very well.


My Thoughts

Kanae Minato’s Confessions begins with Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school homeroom teacher, addressing her class. She informs them that she will be retiring from the profession and describes how and why she has come to that decision. The students are already aware that her four year-old daughter Manami had been found drowned several weeks earlier in the school’s swimming pool. What really shocks them is when she tells them that two of their number were responsible for the death. As she puts it, two of them murdered her daughter.

This chapter, delivered in the second person as though speaking to the whole class, outlines what Yuko has discovered in her investigation. She doesn’t directly name names, though the identities of students A and B are easily inferred and confirmed in the following chapter, but she takes us through the core events that led to these two teenagers killing her daughter. Her account is extremely thorough though the one thing it misses is an understanding of why the murder happened.

The subsequent chapters are each told from the perspectives of other characters including, eventually, the two boys in question. An effect of telling the story from these multiple perspectives is that it feels like we are circling ever more tightly around the explanation, getting closer to an understanding with each fresh perspective until we finally hear from the chief instigator himself and see exactly why he wanted to commit such an appalling crime.

The book’s title, Confessions, is extremely apt. Each of the chapters is told in a slightly different style though in the second person. The intended audience is different each time – one account is written as a letter, another a diary, another a spoken confessional with the last being a blog entry. This gives the text a really direct feeling, involving the reader in the events and making them feel that the two guilty boys might be someone we know or that we might be complicit in some of what happened.

This second person approach is unusual in books for a reason. It is extremely difficult to do well and sustain but the creation of these multiple viewpoints makes it work. It is particularly effective when read aloud so I can certainly recommend the audiobook version of this book which is read by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin. That first chapter in particular feels quite arresting and while I wish a different narrator had been used for each chapter to really drive home the effect, I think simply having a male and female reader works well enough and both performers read skillfully.

While there is a certain amount of revisiting of the same events, these multiple perspectives are skillfully crafted to avoid repeating points too frequently. Events are often discussed tangentially or reframed as parts of different discussions based on what is most important to that character. To give an example, four of the accounts mention an incident in which Yuko had refused to buy an item for her daughter and yet only her own account describes that exchange. The others pass judgment or see an opportunity in that moment but without recapping most of what actually happened.

These chapters flesh out motivations and our understanding of each of the characters. In some cases we can see how and why one character comes to believe or interpret an event in a particular way, even though we possess information that would suggest something different. The strongest examples of this come in a chapter narrated by the mother of one of the boys which is full of statements that fundamentally misinterpret what she is witnessing. The reader has information that she does not which allows us to see the flaw in her thinking, but those flawed assumptions are just as important to our understanding of what happened as the truth.

Confessions does not encourage us to have any sympathy at all for these two boys. What they do is awful and terribly upsetting. I have mentioned before that I find stories featuring violence towards children difficult to read and this was no exception, probably explaining why it has sat for quite some time on my TBR pile. I expected to find this a difficult read and it was. There are no happy endings here which is appropriate – if there were it would feel horribly contrived or misjudging of the mood – and I think the reader may well reach the end and question whether every action taken was appropriate. Whether there was any justice, if not, and whether there could have been any justice.

These two boys are clearly to blame for what happened and yet what this book does encourage us to do is see the forces that made them who they are. After learning the facts of the case we see how easily this scenario could have turned out very differently. Their guilt does not preclude the possibility that others may be guilty too.

Nor are there any heroes. I can think of just two characters depicted in a positive or noble light. One is the murdered daughter Manami who is a very typical four year old – occasionally petulant or naughty but also sweet and loving. The other is a man who remains in the background throughout the story, frequently referred to but never really active in what goes on. Everyone else we encounter is rendered in shades of grey and be prepared – Minato presses down pretty hard with her pencil at times to give us some pretty dark renderings.

In addition to exploring the characters she creates, Minato also explores a variety of themes relating to justice, punishment, parenthood, collective responsibility and the glorification of criminals. While the details of these issues are often specific to Japan, the broader discussions are universal and I think most readers will be able to draw easy parallels to similar issues or cases in their own cultural experience.

The one theme that may be less accessible to western readers is its discussion of hikikomori, adolescent and adult shut-ins and, in particular, the way society perceives that group. I think Minato describes the anxiety and social judgment around this topic well enough that readers who are unfamiliar with the idea will get the jist of what is being discussed but some may find it helpful though to have an understanding of the term to better understand that anxiety and characters’ responses to it given how important it is to the second and third chapters of the book. This 15 minute English-language report from France24 offers a basic overview, as does this much shorter overview from Crunchyroll aimed at anime viewers.

This richness of theme coupled with interesting and complicated characters makes for a really potent read that left me rather shaken. Indeed I can’t help but note that it has taken me longer to write my thoughts about the book than it took me to read it – a mark of when a book has really made an impression on me. It is in my opinion a rather fine example of the whydunnit type of inverted mystery story, exploring how multiple influences can come together to create a truly devastating situation.

Confessions will not be for everyone. It is a really dark book that offers no hope or positivity for the reader to really grasp onto. At its end I was left feeling uncomfortable and terribly sad about what I had just read. Still, in spite of that darkness and that sadness, I think the book was fundamentally about something big and important: our notion of justice, punishment and how we choose to assign blame for crime. This book does not offer answers but it does pose some difficult questions that will linger with me for some time to come.

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Book Details

Originally published in 1946 as 本陣殺人事件
English language translation by Louise Heal Kawai first published in 2019

Kosuke Kindaichi #1
Followed by Gokumonto / 獄門島 (Not currently translated into English)

The Blurb

In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.

Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.

The Verdict

An interesting murder story told in a journalistic style. The murder mechanism is a little much for me, but Yokomizo’s choice of killer and exploration of their motivations are excellent.


My Thoughts

I had been envious of all of my friends based in Britain who were able to get access to The Honjin Murders when it was released there several months ago. Those of us who are Stateside had to wait several months for its US publication date, only adding to my anticipation, as did the recent episode of In GAD We Trust featuring the book’s translator, Louise Heal Kawai. So, could The Honjin Murders live up to its enormous hype as one of the best examples of a Japanese locked room mystery?

The book is presented as a true crime account written by a journalist about events that had taken place in the village of Okamura many years earlier. At the point at which the story starts, those events are distant enough that the grounds of the Ichiyanagi home have become overgrown and some of the buildings have fallen badly into disrepair. The solution to the case is known, though naturally the narrator holds back on providing it until the end of the account.

The mystery concerns the death of the first son of the Ichiyanagi family and his bride on the night of their wedding. In the early hours of the morning a scream is heard followed by the frenzied playing of a koto, a stringed instrument, coming from the annex building in which the young couple were staying. Those who go to check on the couple find that the building is locked and the couple brutally slaughtered inside. Outside a katana is found thrust into the frozen ground in the middle of the garden with no footprints on the snow around it.

The bride’s uncle takes charge and summons a young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who happens to be in the area to come and investigate the crime scene. He has to not only explain how someone was able to commit the murder inside the locked room and get away without leaving any footprints in the snow but also why the crime was committed in the first place.

There are several intriguing lines of inquiry for Kindaichi to pursue. The marriage was unpopular with the Inchiyanagi family who felt that the bride was not of a suitable standing. The son had unexpectedly retired from his academic life yet the reasons were confusing. And then there was the strange three-fingered warrior who was observed in the village asking about the estate.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this book is the short time period in which the investigative phase of the novel takes place. Much of the book is spent describing the events leading up to the death with the actual investigation really being contained within the second half of the novel. While the means by which the crime is committed is technically complex, Kindaichi seems to quickly assess the scene and the investigation is restricted to a handful of interviews and physical examination of the space.

The most obvious comparison to make with Kindaichi is Sherlock Holmes. There are some aspects of Kindaichi’s character that seem to directly reference the Great Detective, such as his history of substance abuse and his unusual status as a private consulting detective. Both men seem to instinctively read a crime scene and make judgments of those they interact with, though I would suggest that Kindaichi is a softer, more humane character in his interactions with those other characters.

The narrator clearly admires Kindaichi, though he does not know him. We are aware that he will solve this case but a consequence of this distance is that we never really get inside the detective’s head or get a broader understanding of his character. The focus then falls on the strange series of events which thankfully are intriguing enough to be worthy of that interest but it does mean that I did not put this down feeling attached to the sleuth. While I am keen to read The Inugami Curse, I do not feel particularly attached to Kindaichi yet and will be reading it primarily for the author’s skill at plotting.

On the other hand the journalistic approach does result in a very tight narrative that focuses on the most pertinent points of the investigation. I feel that this works well with this sort of impossible crime tale and it does mean that we can trust that we are being given everything we need to solve the crime.

Of course, having said that I think I should say that I would be surprised if anyone could work out exactly how this particular crime was carried out. The mechanics of the murder are extremely complex and while I think they are well described, I certainly had no clue how the murder could have been worked.

The question of who did it and why however is much fairer. There are plenty of clues, some physical and some psychological, to point to the guilty party and their motivation to kill. While I was not surprised by those aspects of the explanation, I felt that the reasons given were quite satisfying.

I will say however that the impossible crime aspects of the novel are perhaps the least rewarding parts of the book. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the mystery or its resolution, but I can imagine that readers may well find the explanation rather convoluted and too complex to easily imagine. Certainly I did not come close, though I must admit that I am not a reader who can easily visualize a scene, even when it is described well (as is the case here). I found that I had some sympathy for a character in the novel who is an avid reader of locked room mysteries who laments stories that rely on mechanical explanations, a charge which I feel can be fairly levelled at this book.

Still, while I may not have been able to effectively play at armchair sleuth I did enjoy following along with this investigation and observing how Kindaichi is able to piece the details of the crime together. His account of what happened, while quite far-fetched, does feel like it ties up all of the important plot points well.

In my opinion, Yokomizo creates an interesting mix of characters and there are several moments in the plot that I found quite striking and, in at least one case, quite chilling. There is one strand of the story that seems to infer the supernatural and while I can assure readers that the real explanation of the crime is quite rational, I felt that those aspects of the plot were introduced quite effectively.

I already had a copy of the author’s The Inugami Curse on preorder and I am happy to report that I do not regret that decision. This story had enough striking images and ideas to capture my imagination and I found the explanation of the crime to be both inventive and quite compelling. Is it a perfect impossible crime story? Perhaps not, but I do think it is interesting enough to be worth your attention if you are a fan of the subgenre.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie

Book Details

Originally published in 1981 as 占星術殺人事件
English translation first published in 2004

Kiyoshi Mitarai #1

The Blurb

Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve a macabre murder mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years—in just one week. With the help of his freelance illustrator friend, Kiyoshi sets out to answer the questions that have haunted the country ever since: Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, ‘the perfect woman’?

With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion—pieced together like a great stage tragedy—challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain falls.

The Verdict

The locked room elements of the plot are oversold and the least interesting part of an otherwise fascinating case.


My Thoughts

Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of those books frequently cited as a later classic in the locked room sub-genre. As the cover of the Pushkin Vertigo reprint points out, this was selected by The Guardian as one of the top ten locked room mysteries of all time which was certainly enough to get my attention and get me to take a closer look.

This book has been on my to be read pile for some time. In what I can only describe as a comedy of errors on my part, I succeeded in purchasing three copies of the book over the past four months. At the same time, I also had a copy on loan from the library AND I own an ebook copy. An expensive mistake, though I did make sure I read at least a few pages from each of the copies!

The novel opens with an excerpt from a fictional document written in 1936 that is a blend of will and confession. In it the painter Heikichi Umezawa describes how he has come to believe he is possessed and that he must murder all of his daughters (biological and adoptive) except Kazue Kanemoto who is excluded because she is not a virgin and remove body parts according to their zodiac signs to create a body to a perfect woman, Azoth, to be brought into this world. The remains of his daughters will be buried at sites across Japan, also in accordance with their zodiac signs. This, he believes, will enable Imperial Japan to find prosperity.

The novel then jumps forward to 1979 and introduces us to our narrator, mystery fan Kazumi Ishioka, and astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai. We learn that a series of murders like those described by Heikichi took place over forty years earlier and that they remain unsolved in spite of the existence of the document. The reason for this is that Heikichi was murdered in his locked studio before the murders of his children and so could not have committed the murders himself.

Kazumi is providing Kiyoshi with details concerning each of the murders which, we are told, can be sorted into three groups. The first is the murder of Heikichi in his studio which was locked and bolted from the inside. The second is the murder of Kazue whose head is smashed in an apparent robbery. Finally we have the disappearance of the six daughters, step-daughters and nieces after travelling to Mt. Yahiko to lay Heikichi’s spirit to rest. It takes some time to find the mutilated bodies but they are found buried near mines across Japan, each missing the body parts as described in the initial document. Azoth, the creation presumed to have been made using them, is never found.

If my description above sounds dense and confusing, it reflects that this is a very complicated plot with a number of different elements at play. A consequence of this is that the earliest chapters often feel very dense and dry as the two friends describe and walk through the events and some of the theories that people have proposed to explain them. Shimada throws a lot of information at the reader which means that progress in the first section of the book can be a little slow, particularly if you are seriously trying to solve the case yourself.

The story opens up however once we are presented with a second document and the reasons for the protagonists’ interest in the case become clearer. This information, and a subsequent challenge from the authorities, leads the pair to undertake a journey to try and solve a case that baffled Japan for over forty years in under a week.

If the previous section of the novel felt stagnant and slow, these chapters inject some energy and excitement into the process. There is a real sense of discovery as the pair travel across Japan to talk with witnesses and the questions we are posed and try to answer are reworked and refined.

Shimada chooses to style his novel as a fair play mystery, providing not just one but two challenges to the reader. I found this to be quite charming, particularly given that while they are clearly related they place emphasis on different aspects of the crime.

The explanation for what had happened and why feels quite wonderfully audacious and I felt it was explained clearly. Compared with those earlier, dense chapters, these feel easy to follow and boast some very clever ideas.

The one aspect of the solution that I felt underwhelmed by was, strangely enough, the locked room itself. The mechanics of how this were worked do little to appeal to the imagination while I also found it hard to imagine the details of the crime scene, particularly the descriptions of the bed. I only really able to imagine the evidence properly towards the end of the book once the significant details had been explained.

I felt that, on the whole, Shimada played fair with the readers. Now, I will say that I would be surprised if readers picked up on every aspect of the solution by themselves, in part because Shimada’s handling of his evidence is so clever and precise. I came closer than I expected to, noticing several important clues, but I struggled to weave them together effectively into a cohesive whole. For me the solution is truly memorable and I enjoyed following our sleuths as they reached it.

The sleuths were the least interesting aspect of the book for me although I appreciated their method and some of the testy exchanges they share, particularly over the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Kiyoshi’s disdain for Sherlock Holmes is quite entertaining, particularly as he reaches for negative descriptions of the character. While he is not alone in wondering if the great detective is as brilliant as he is usually supposed – some of the criticisms made will be familiar to fans of the stories – I enjoyed them in large part because Kiyoshi seems oblivious to his own similarities with the character. For instance, both are reluctant to have their story retold, both are prone to lethargy followed by sudden bursts of energy and action and so on.

Beyond Kiyoshi and the first victim, Kazumi, however do not expect particularly rich characterizations. Much of the story is told in conversation between the two friends and so there are relatively few opportunities for interaction with other figures in the story. Also, given the high body count there simply are not many characters from that earlier period still around to talk to, meaning that several interviews feel a little peripheral to the main case.

Overall, I feel that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is an interesting although sometimes challenging read. It has some inventive ideas but the early chapters contain so much information that they sometimes feel hard-going. For those who persevere through that heavy first section, the final destination is clever, original and explained very clearly with lots of diagrams making for a worthwhile read.


Second Opinion

For a second opinion from someone with much deeper knowledge of the impossible crime story check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event.

I Can See in the Dark by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson

Book Details

Originally published in 2010 as Jeg kan se i mørket.
English translation published in 2013.

The Blurb

Riktor doesn’t like the way the policeman storms into his home without even knocking. He doesn’t like the arrogant way he walks around the house, taking note of its contents. The policeman doesn’t bother to explain why he’s there, and Riktor is too afraid to ask. He knows he’s guilty of a terrible crime and he’s sure the policeman has found him out.

But when the policeman finally does confront him, Riktor freezes. The man is arresting him for something totally unexpected. Riktor doesn’t have a clear conscience, but the crime he’s being accused of is one he certainly didn’t commit. Can he clear his name without further incriminating himself?

The Verdict

An uncomfortable read with a striking, if unpleasant, protagonist.


My Thoughts

I Can See in the Dark is not the sort of novel that is full of surprises. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it reflects a certain storytelling approach that suggests the grim inevitability of some outcomes so that when that moment comes it feels utterly appropriate.

The only real questions that the reader will have based on the blurb are who was his victim for the crime he did commit and who is he accused of murdering? Given that it is hard to outline the plot in any detail without spoiling those I will instead focus on describing our protagonist.

The novel is told from the perspective of Riktor, a rather bitter and lonely middle-aged individual who works in a nursing home. He is unmarried and has no children, often lamenting his lack of success at talking with people with repeated statements that he needs to find a wife. He hopes that he might form that sort of a connection with Sister Anna, a rather pious nurse who he suggests is the only person at his work who really cares, but seems unable to really talk with her.

Riktor’s own attitude towards his work is largely negative, finding the patients to be pitiful and repulsive. He finds huge amusement in carrying out little moments of cruelty towards his invalid patients including pinching or taunting them, sometimes switching their medications when he is alone with them in their rooms.

Much of his time away from work centers around a public park where he frequently encounters the same familiar faces. He despises most of them, assuming that they are probably being supported by the state and questioning why his taxes should go towards them and speculating about how pitiful their lives must be.

Riktor does not plan to become a murderer. Instead it happens in a moment of uncontrolled anger. He tries to cover up the crime and is terrified when the police show up to arrest him for murder but the terror turns to bafflement when he learns that the crime he is suspected of is one which he has nothing to do with.

Much of the remainder of the book deals with his preparations for trial. Will Riktor be able to present himself well in court and show that he was not involved? In addition there is the question of who is responsible for that murder if not him.

Let’s start with that last question first because I do not want to oversell that idea too much. There is a mystery here for the reader to consider but it sits largely in the background, more wondered about by Riktor than actually investigated. As such there is not a lot of evidence to go on and while I think there is at least a hint as to the killer’s identity, I don’t think it is particularly satisfying and it would not justify reading the book in itself.

Instead our focus is on exploring the character of Riktor and his reactions to the things he learns and his experiences of being in prison. We see how the environment changes him and how he adapts to it, even seeming to thrive there.

It is this section of the book that is the most intriguing because it is here that the reader will likely come closest to having some understanding of Riktor and the impulses that guide him. This is not because he is misunderstood or a victim himself – he repeatedly tells us that he does not have a tragic backstory that explains his problems – but because we see how much he values even the most superficial of connections.

It must be emphasized though that these moments of empathy are just that – moments. Riktor is a tragic figure but he has made conscious decisions to shift his pain and unhappiness onto others for years, tormenting the most vulnerable in society. This makes it quite unsettling and uncomfortable to spend a little over two hundred pages in his company.

There are several other characters in the novel but as the events are filtered through Riktor’s voice they often feel quite remote and distant. This is understandable given that he struggles to connect with others but it does mean that the reader never really connects with them either.

Ultimately the reader’s enjoyment of this book will largely center on how compelling they find him as a character and how much they can tolerate time spent inside his head. While there are some questions to solve, many of the solutions will be pretty apparent through the structure of the novel and I think readers keen on mystery elements will be disappointed.

Looking at it from the perspective of an inverted crime novel, I think it has some points of interest with regards the development of the character’s internal voice and the length feels appropriate. However, because the crime lacks any kind of planning and the cover-up feels so simple, Riktor isn’t much of a criminal mind. Instead we are simply spending time with a sadist and the result is a book that can make for pretty uncomfortable reading. In spite of those complaints however I found this to be a faster, more interesting and complete read than my previous experience of Fossum – The Murder of Harriet Krohn.

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories by Young-Ha Kim, translated by Krys Lee

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 살인자의 기억법
English translation first published in 2019

The Blurb

Diary of a Murderer captivates and provokes in equal measure, exploring what it means to be on the edge—between life and death, good and evil. In the titular novella, a former serial killer suffering from memory loss sets his sights on one final target: his daughter’s boyfriend, who he suspects is also a serial killer. In other stories we witness an affair between two childhood friends that questions the limits of loyalty and love; a family’s disintegration after a baby son is kidnapped and recovered years later; and a wild, erotic ride about pursuing creativity at the expense of everything else.

The Verdict

This collection of stories sits on the very edge of the genre as literary fiction but they show the writer’s skills at exploring and evoking feelings.


My Thoughts

Some months ago I wrote a review of Young-Ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You in which I praised the author’s creativity and ability to explore the nuances of human relationships. Those qualities are also present in this more recent collection of four short stories.

Like the novel, these stories touch on genre elements and themes but may be seen first and foremost as character and situation explorations. Each story places the characters into tense and challenging situations involving crime or the threat of violence and shows us how those flawed characters respond.

Young-Ha Kim creates some intriguing and striking situations, particularly in Diary of a Murderer which takes up almost half the page count for the collection. That story explores the idea of a serial killer experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease and how they respond when they fear another killer may be targeting their adopted daughter. It is a really clever story that plays with our perceptions and conveys the protagonist’s feelings of confusion.

The other story that really impressed me was Missing Child. As the title suggests, it centers on the way a child’s abduction affects the parents and the child themselves. I felt the characterizations were excellent and the plot unfolds in thoughtful and unexpected ways.

Those looking primarily for detective stories will probably want to pass over this collection but there are some really interesting ideas here that are worth exploring for those willing to venture outside the genre.

Thoughts on the individual stories follow on the next page.

The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara, translated by Jill Foulston

Book Details

Originally published in 1976 as La stanza del Vescovo (Italian)
English translation first published in 2019

The Blurb

Summer 1946. World War Two has just come to an end and there’s a yearning for renewal. A man in his thirties is sailing on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, hoping to put off the inevitable return to work. Dropping anchor in a small, fashionable port, he meets the enigmatic owner of a nearby villa who invites him home for dinner with his older wife and beautiful widowed sister-in-law. The sailor is intrigued by the elegant waterside mansion, staffed with servants and imbued with mystery, and stays in a guest room previously occupied by a now deceased bishop related to his host. The two men form an uneasy bond, recognizing in each other a shared taste for idling and erotic adventure. But suddenly tragedy puts an end to their revels and shatters the tranquility of the villa.

The Verdict

More a work of literary fiction than a genre piece being neither mysterious nor suspenseful. Sadly it didn’t work for me.


My Thoughts

Typically my process for a book review begins by my jotting down a few words – usually adjectives – that I associate with it. My paper for The Bishop’s Bedroom simply reads: “Short”.

This stems from one of my biggest frustrations – book padding. In this case the digital edition has 183 pages but the actual content ends at page 144. When you consider that the book only begins on page 9 you are left with 135 pages and even that feels generous – the lines of text have been given plenty of room to breathe…

Enough ranting. Let’s talk about the book!

My Thoughts About The Book

The Bishop’s Bedroom is told from the perspective of a nameless drifter who spends his time sailing around Lake Maggiore. He lives a rather carefree existence, meeting up with women – some of them single, some married – before sailing to another port.

In the early chapters of the book he encounters and befriends Mario Orimbelli who shows an interest in his boat and invites him to stay with him. After meeting Orimbelli’s wife and widowed sister-in-law, Orimbelli arranges to experience life on the water for himself. Of course, it turns out that once away from his wife Orimbelli reveals himself to be completely incapable of controlling his libido…

At this point I probably need to stop summarizing the plot because we are basically already halfway through the book. I can say that you will get a body and the circumstances of the death are not clear yet this is not the sort of book that is interested in giving you answers to what happened. It is really about the journey and the way the events he witnesses affect the narrator.

The Bishop’s Bedroom is perhaps best judged then as a work of literary fiction with genre elements rather than a purely genre work. This is, of course, not a form of complaint. Nor do I think it makes it irrelevant as a topic to cover on this blog. It does mean though that readers in search of a detective novel may want to pass this one by.

It reminds me a lot of Antonioni’s film Blow-up, not only in its questionable celebration of hedonism but also in the way it really explores how uncertainty about an event or their understanding of relationships can really get inside the head of someone and affect them. There are not really clues or much in the way of evidence or testimony yet the reader will come to have a feeling about the death, even if they will never get any confirmation about whether they were right.

Which is, I suppose, the point. The uncertainty is really what matters. Some may find it infuriating but I think it works in the greater context of the novella.

In some other respects I can see similarities with Patricia Highsmith’s work such as the development of the relationship between the protagonist and Orimbelli. While this is in no way a homoerotic relationship as in Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley, the blend of admiration and repulsion has something of the same flavor.

Neither the narrator, nor Orimbelli however exert anything like the magnetic draw of those characters to the reader, just on the other characters. The entire first half of the novella is spent trawling around Lake Maggiore in search of carefree sexual conquests and both men, for all their claims to recognize women as having freedom, end up treating women like sexual objects or cuts of meat and trying to cajole and maneuver them until they give into their advances.

I will be the first to defend a writer’s decision to create an unlikeable protagonist – just look at my reviews of various Jim Thompson novels – but that character must have some complexity or be making some deeper commentary about society or humanity. Chiara’s character may change but not enough to make him an interesting or compelling protagonist to follow.

Still it is hard to deny that the author does succeed in making other aspects of the journey seem appealing, evoking a sense of place and carefreeness and of simply being on the water. While I found the angst about Orimbelli stealing “his” women a bit tiresome, I can say that the second half of the book does improve and it does have something to say about postwar Italian society and of the consequences of disengagement from the world around us.

Unfortunately it is not enough for me to feel like I can recommend this. The most interesting characters in the piece are the two women in Orimbelli’s life and they barely appear. Sadly the time spent with the men seemed as slow and aimless as the lives they chose to lead. Overall, I think this was just not for me.

Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally Published as La Mort Vient De Nulle Part (French) in 1943
English translation published in 2020

The Blurb

Is Breule Manor cursed? Can a strange incantation predicting the time of death release an occult spirit to murder time and time again, in impossible circumstances and with no clues? As the terror gets closer, an amateur detective stumbles across the astonishing solution. Recognised as one of the great books of the French Golden Age, the story will grab you, baffle you and amuse you.

The Verdict

Though short, Death out of Nowhere is packed with superb ideas and a genuinely astonishing solution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

Death out of Nowhere begins at a gathering of four friends – a journalist, novelist, school supervisor and clerk – at the manor belonging to another of their mutual friends, the Baron Pierre de Maleves.

During a discussion about crime fiction Beaurieux, the school supervisor, makes a bet that he can commit a ‘perfect crime’ at the hour of a friend’s choosing. The friend accepts and tells him to do it immediately which he does, performing a small series of actions involving a handkerchief, a funnel, some playing cards and exclaims “and the Emperor be damned”. Moments later a shot rings out and a short while later the Baron’s great-uncle is found dead in a locked and bolted room with no weapon to be found.

Let me start by saying that the opening chapters of this novella are an absolute hoot. The book opens with the group bickering about crime stories with the dialog poking fun at some of the conventions and excesses of the genre. This is one of my favorite tropes in crime fiction – the self-aware discussion of the genre to make us aware that these characters are already aware of the tricks and promising, hopefully, something fresh. Gensoul and Grenier handle this well and I think the resulting novella does a fine job of fulfilling that promise.

The idea of the impossible crime bet is an appealing one and, once again, introduced quite effectively. Beaurieux has been highly animated in conversation and when he grabs LeBellec, the clerk, by the wrists and declares “All of a sudden, I feel like killing someone” I felt energized and excited by what struck me as a moment of quite wonderfully controlled yet dramatic madness and I wondered what that moment was setting up.

The ritual itself is interesting in its simplicity and immediately raises a number of questions about what happened, whether the murder was supposed to happen and what might happen next. I was highly engaged by the questions posed and while I had some guesses, I didn’t come close to answering them. Well, except that last one. There will be more murders…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.

On the topic of those guests, it should be said that this book does not have a character formally designated as the sleuth and in whose good nature and truthfulness we can wholeheartedly trust. This does open up the possibility that any of the small cast might have been involved although the nature of their various alibis makes finding a suspect who had means and opportunity seem almost impossible.

I would also say that as you might expect from a work of this length, characterization of the various suspects and victims is fairly simplistic. The four friends do all have distinct personality types but exist mostly to fill functions in the story. I think in this case it works well and ultimately suits the tone and style of the story the authors were seeking to tell. In other words, come to this book for its plot and ideas rather than its characters and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution, when it is revealed, is one of the more audacious I have encountered in impossible crime fiction yet I think it is mechanically credible, particularly given the way it is executed here. It is perhaps the type of solution that it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with organically but I do think it is justified when you look back at the material with knowledge of what the solution will be although few of the most important clues are signposted.

My only complaint with the plotting comes with a mechanical reveal that takes place in chapter fourteen which hinges on an understanding of how something works that I didn’t think had been described. Had that been critical to understanding all of the murders I might have been less willing to forgive it and I will concede that this may just hinge on my own ignorance and may have been more apparent to other readers.

Putting that complaint to one side, I loved many other parts of the conclusion and think it did a fine job of making a complicated series of events understandable and credible. The explanation occurs after a flurry of excitement and here, once again, the authors do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of energy and intellectual curiosity.

Overall I must once again give John Pugmire and Locked Room International credit for translating this work and making it available for us to enjoy. While it is short, it has so many fantastic ideas at work that I felt thoroughly satisfied with my experience reading it. I had never heard of this novella or its authors prior to the announcement of its release being made so it was a particular delight to get to come to this with no foreknowledge or expectations and I can only hope that they continue for a long time to come.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event liked this overall, saying that it won’t be for everyone (and suggesting that it doesn’t really play fair).

(Apologies if the formatting is off on this post – I edited it on my cell after posting to add the link)