Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as 斜め屋敷の犯罪
English translation published in 2019

The Blurb

The Crooked House sits on a snowbound cliff overlooking icy seas at the remote northern tip of Japan. A curious place for the millionaire Kozaburo Hamamoto to build a house, but even more curious is the house itself – a disorienting maze of sloping floors and strangely situated staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny, lifesize dolls. When a man is found dead in one of the mansion’s rooms, murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances, the police are called. But they are unable to solve the puzzle, and powerless to protect the party of house guests as more bizarre deaths follow.

Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the renowned sleuth, famous for unmasking the culprit behind the notorious Umezawa family massacre. Surely if anyone can crack these cryptic murders he will. But you have all the clues too – can you solve the mystery of the murders in The Crooked House first?

The Verdict

The puzzle construction is technically impressive but I was unconvinced by the motive both in its conception and how it was clued.

It’s been for sale for many years, but it will probably stay that way. It’s less the fault of the remote location; it’s far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away.

My Thoughts

Murder in the Crooked House takes place in an isolated and rather oddly-designed mansion on the northern tip of Japan. The inside of the house is a maze of staircases, requiring guests to go up multiple floors in order to then climb down another staircase to reach their room, and the floors are slightly tilted. Next to the mansion is a large tower made of glass, leaning at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and connected to the main house with a staircase in the style of a drawbridge. This is the sort of architectural design that makes the homes in Death in the House of Rain or The 8 Mansion Murders seem pretty conventional in comparison.

Kozaburo Hamamoto, a retired business executive, has gathered a group of guests to his home to celebrate the Christmas holiday with him most of whom are strangeres to him. Telling them that he loves puzzles, he shares several challenges with them before telling several guests that whoever can solve the mystery of the meaning of a fan-shaped flowerbed at the base of the tower would have his blessing to marry his daughter. Leaving his guests to socialize, he retires to his bedroom and several others follow. During the middle of the night however a scream is heard when one of his guests awakes to see a burned, frostbitten face staring in at her window, seemingly impossible given she is on the top floor, and most of the household rises to investigate.

The exception is Ueda, a chauffeur, who cannot be roused by the other guests. When they break down the locked door to his room they find him stabbed in the chest with a hunting knife, one hand tied to the foot of his foldout bed, and his limbs arranged in a strange pattern. Meanwhile outside they find a dismembered lifesize doll lying in pieces in the snow, two large stakes embedded in the ground and no footprints. And then, with several members of the Police staying in the house, a further murder occurs…

That may sound like a lot of elements but keep in mind that I have only really described in very loose detail the first of what will be a series of murders. There are several additional killings in the book and while there are certainly some similar traits shared between the murders, there are also some curious differences as well as plenty of further odd details to discover about the house.

The book can be divided broadly into four sections which Shimada terms “acts”. The first introduces the characters, contains the events described above and brings us to the point where the police are summoned. The second sees the police investigate and realize they are out of their depth when another murder occurs. The third brings in the fortune teller Kiyoshi Mitarai, the sleuth from The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, to begin his own investigation, culminating in the challenge to the reader before a shorter final act explains the case.

The first two acts are incredibly detailed, explaining various features of the house and key rooms within it at some length, often with the aid of diagrams. These are actually quite useful and for that reason I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this as an ebook utilize a device that is at least as wide as the paperback book to ensure you can take in all of the details.

I personally found the level of detail in those acts to be rather overwhelming. In spite of the diagrams and some pretty clear descriptions, I struggled to visualize the relationships between the different aspects of the house until close to the end. I blame that on my not being a particularly visually imaginative reader when it comes to architecture, something I previously confessed to in my comments on The Honjin Murders. This is hardly the book’s fault – I don’t think it could have been described any better than it is.

Happily though while the architecture may have been beyond me, there were plenty of other details of the crime to intrigue me. It was these elements, such as the long cord on the hunting knife and the golem doll, that interested me most and kept me engaged with the story to persevere throughout its first half.

My interest increased considerably once Kiyoshi Mitarai arrived on the scene. Mitarai remains as brilliant and as infuriating as he was in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. From the point he first appears the style of the story becomes much more direct (thankfully Mitarai is already aware of the key elements of the case avoiding repetition). I also appreciated that he is such a strong and rather abrasive personality because so with so many characters – thirteen inhabitants of the house plus the various investigators – few really seemed to stand out in those early chapters. Indeed I think some of the characters’ personalities become clearer in the process of interacting with him.

Which I suppose brings me to the book’s resolution. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love the way Shimada builds up to the point at which Mitarai nabs the guilty party which struck me as very creative and effective. I was, of course, quite sure who the killer was long before that point though the manner of murder I could not visualize until it was explained. At that point it all became very clear and while I think the idea is clearly quite incredible, I respect the imagination that created it.

The problem for me with the scenario is ultimately one of motive. While I fully concede I should have been able to visualize how the crime was carried out, I did not feel that the reasons for it were clued anywhere near as thoroughly. This is particularly frustrating because as ingenious a method as this is, it strikes me as completely unnecessary and therefore far too convoluted for reasons I’ll go into on a second page linked below.

Overall then I feel rather unsure of how I feel about this book. Its puzzle ideas are quite thrilling and often pretty technically inventive. Some will admire the ambition of Shimada’s creation and they will be right to do so but I really wish it was built on a stronger foundation of motive.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Locked Rooms category as a Silver Age read.

Second Opinions

TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time loved this book far more than me, describing it as a ‘good and memorable locked room novel’. While I was not as enthusiastic, I do echo his calls for more Shimada (and shin honkaku) in translation.

John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books offers a thoughtful comparison of this book and The Honjin Murders describing this as ‘nothing but a puzzle’. I share his preference for The Honjin Murders and would agree with his reasons.

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.

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Seicho
A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto
Originally Published 1975

A Quiet Place is one of those novels that presents a particular challenge to review without mentioning at least a few spoilers. This is because there is an event that takes place a significant way into the novel which transforms the narrative.

This novel is the first I have read by Matsumoto, an author who was one of the most successful and important figures in Japanese crime fiction. This is a work from later in his career and while I have seen it described as a thriller, that would be a slightly misleading way to characterize a book that contains very little action and little in the way of suspense. It certainly doesn’t read that way. Instead I would suggest it is better regarded as a character study with mysterious elements and some of the form of a detective story.

The novel concerns Tsuneo Asai, a middle-ranking but respected official in the Ministry of Agriculture. He works hard to ingratiate himself with his superiors, knowing that they will likely be with him a short time but hoping that his efforts may lead to some future promotion. He is on a trip with them attending a dinner when he receives a telephone call from his wife’s sister. She informs him that his wife who was only thirty years old died some five hours earlier of a heart attack. He cuts his trip short, returning home to make the funeral arrangements.

As he learns more about the circumstances of his wife’s death he becomes increasingly confused. Not by the cause of death, as he knew she suffered from a serious heart condition, but rather from the location in which it occurred. She died in a boutique shop in a neighborhood he would hardly expect her to visit. He decides to pay a visit to the shopkeeper to offer a payment for the inconvenience his wife’s death caused her business but is confused by the shopkeeper’s demeanor and some of her responses, leading him to have even more questions about her death.

What follows adheres to many of the beats of the detective novel with the husband working to piece together what happened. He interviews some witnesses, tries to get a sense of the location and comes up with a theory. There is little surprising in the content of those investigations, rather the interest comes from the way that this investigation will affect Asai. I should also say at this point that I appreciated that the author has this story take place slowly over a number of months, emphasizing Asai is not a professional investigator and is having to work around the restrictions of his work calendar.

This sort of internalized, psychological story can be only as interesting as its protagonist and here I feel that Matsumoto meets with mixed success. Asai shows some intriguing and credible contradictions within his personality and I can see that there seems to be some satirical notes struck in his characterization yet the character’s reserved and calculating personality means he rarely dominates the narrative, especially in those early chapters.

While he has suffered a loss, the reader is unlikely to feel much sympathy for him given the way in which he responds. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of getting the news his first thought is how to convey the information to his colleagues and ensure his superior continues to receive good hospitality on their trip. As the narrative develops however I think depth is added to that characterization, building up to that moment I referenced where the novel takes on a different tone and style.

I do not want to give the impression that this is an abrupt or unexpected change – I would argue that it is actually rather a natural and organic development from the seeds laid in those early chapters. For me this shift worked nicely because it built upon what had come before and I think what follows is very well plotted and ultimately very satisfying. On the other hand, I could easily see it frustrating readers who come to this hoping for a more traditional whodunit or thriller structure due to its unorthodox structure and sense of pacing.

This puts me in a somewhat difficult position when it comes to recommending it as while I think it is ultimately a very successful novel that contains some wonderful character and thematic moments, it is perhaps less compelling as an example of the mystery genre. After all, for much of its duration the book is really not that mysterious and certainly the explanation for the wife’s death is likely to disappoint most readers expecting a more traditional detective story structure. Indeed, for much of the novel it is not even clear if a crime has taken place.

For those prepared to endure an extremely leisurely pacing for much of the novel, I do think there are some strong rewards both in the way Matsumoto builds to a striking ending and also the fascinating depictions of Japanese social interaction. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you will find it to be an interesting, characterful read.