The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada

One particular crime has haunted Japan for the past forty years. The artist Heikichi Umezawa wrote a detailed treatise as to how he was going to create the perfect being, Azoth, made of six parts, each taken from one of his daughters, each chosen for their star sign. Looking at all aspects of the zodiac, the plans were laid out in perfect detail, and, as detailed the six girls were all murdered, with the various parts of the bodies removed. There was only one problem – Umezawa was himself murdered before the plan could be carried out – and yet the murders still occurred.

Why would anyone else anyone have followed up on Umezawa’s insane plan? How was Umezawa killed, given he was locked inside his studio? And what happened to Azoth itself?

Kiyoshi Mitarai, an astrologer and would-be detective, comes upon a new piece of information and has, for reasons a little too complicated to go into, a week to solve the decades-old crime. But how can he possibly succeed where no one else has succeeded before?

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders has a bit of a reputation, in case you weren’t aware. It is the debut novel of Soji Shimada who has written a bucketload of mysteries since. It was written in 1981 but was only translated in 2004 and since then… well, that’s it for non-Japanese readers. Apparently there’s going to be another one next year – Murder In The Crooked House which is, I think, the sequel to this one – but it’s slow going, I’m afraid, with one title every fifteen years… This title is generally regarded as a classic of the genre, being the inspiration for the Honkaku school of Japanese crime writing. But despite its reputation – is it actually any good?

I am, to be honest, rather torn. At the centre of the story, there is a very clever idea – stunningly clever in fact. Rather gruesome, but stunningly clever. It’s a complex puzzle with a delightful idea at the centre. But at the end of the day, it’s not the fair-play classic that it’s made out to be.

I didn’t spot any real clues to the solution, just a solution that makes sense of the facts, and one aspect of that solution – no, two aspects – are really quite disappointingly straightforward. And at the centre of the grand plan, something that has been meticulously plotted, is a reliance on one individual to behave in a certain way twice – at least one of the occasions is against their nature as they admit themselves – which seems a massive risk for such a plan. Oh, and the characters, with only a couple of exceptions, aren’t desperately deep.

But that criticism comes mostly from high expectations – it’s a really enjoyable read and definitely worth a look by any fan of crime fiction. But don’t go into it expecting it to be the finest piece of detection fiction ever written – if you going into it assuming it’ll be a bit of fun, then you’ll get a lot more out of it. Well Worth A Look.

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