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 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.