Friday, January 3, 2020

FFB: Shimada & Yokomizo: A Showdown of Narrative Styles

Two books that were eligible for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year were the first English translations of decades old Japanese mystery novel. I read both in December and while I perhaps would’ve nominated one of them (but not both) someone else beat me to the one worthy of the award. Each is an example of fantastical plotting techniques that make Japanese detective fiction both admirable and infuriating to a diehard fan.

First let me tackle Murder in the Crooked House (1982) by Soji Shimada. Shimada wrote the brazenly audacious The Tokyo Zodiac Murders which I read decades ago long before it was reprinted. It’s a perfect example of the new vein or “orthodox” Japanese murder mysteries that incorporate puzzles into detective novels. And in this case the word incorporate is literal.

But these puzzles are not baffling aspects of the case they are the entire reason the book and story exists. To the Japanese mystery writer and those who devour this very specific type of detective novel a puzzle is a puzzle is a puzzle. Nothing else really matters. The solution to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is in fact something I came across as a teenager in a puzzle book which has nothing to do with killing or murder. It is a simple tangram puzzle. What Shimada does is both ingenious and utterly perverse in how he adapts the puzzle as part of his solution to his murder mystery.

Similarly, Murder in the Crooked House is nothing but a puzzle. While not inspired by a tangram the plot does incorporate a ridiculous idea – that someone would construct an entire house in order to obtain murderous revenge. The reader must not only suspend disbelief and enter a wholly fantastic universe, but must accept that someone would find it necessary to spend thousands of dollars (or yen, I guess) and well as investing several years of their life in carrying out this vigilante style retribution for a decades old past wrong.

Admittedly, the revenge plot that is years in the making is a timeworn detective novel motif. This is not what I take exception to. In mystery novels like The Tragedy of X and Thirteen Women, where a revenge plot may have been the product of monomania and taken years to plan and reach fruition the murder methods are fairly simple. It is the motive that is unknown to the reader and detectives. This is the puzzle that must be worked out.

And granted there is an entire subgenre of detective novels where the murder method is baffling to the police and this creates much of the gameplay, so to speak, as the reader tries to match wits with the detective in the story. Both are trying to figure out not so much the whodunnit aspect of the crime but the howdunnit.

In both examples the puzzle is an aspect of the crime or crimes. It does not encompass the entirety of the story, it is not the raison d’être. Murder in the Crooked House is not really a detective novel at all. It is a series of puzzles with one overarching puzzle that serves as the pièce de résistance. This is not what detective fiction is about; it is an unfortunate consequence of stressing, practically worshipping, form over substance. In the case of Murder in the Crooked House form, in all its contexts, is everything -- the architecture of the fictional house becomes the architecture of the plot. Once the reader is presented with the preposterous reasoning of the murderer and the full outline of the various murder methods, however, the house's true purpose is revealed and as a direct result, ironically, the story simply collapses. There is no satisfaction in having arrived at the end and discovering that the characters were puppets, the motive was cliché, and the house itself was one gigantic murder method dying to carry out its landlord’s diabolical wishes.

As some wise guy might say in an American pulp novel when presented with one of these absurd impossible crimes: “Pulling a trigger would’ve been faster and helluva lot easier.”

On the other hand a Japanese detective novel can present us with a puzzling murder, done in a bizarre manner and still be entertaining to read, fun to match wits with the detective, and leave the reader with a the satisfying feeling of having read a true novel populated with complex people with human emotions and understandably sound motives. The crimes may be bizarre but there is an inherent logic about why they appear bizarre or why the method had to be baroquely constructed. This is the success of The Honjin Murders (1948), a thoroughly Japanese mystery steeped in the culture and mores of pre-WW2 era Japan with characters who behave according to both their own personal code of honor as well as Japanese custom.

The added bonus is that the book is a homage to the entire detective novel genre with one character an avowed mystery novel collector and reader of the “classics”. Our mystery writer narrator (the voice of Yokomizo himself I am assuming) also reminds us of his own knowledge of Western novels like The Red House Mystery and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

This is a genuine detective novel with interesting characters, while some like the matriarch Iwoko are eventually consigned to the background and the elder daughter is entirely absent from the plot, there is never any doubt that we care about the fate of the Ichiyangi family. Kosuke Kindaichi makes his debut in The Honjin Murders shining in genius-like form as he figures out just how the newlyweds were killed in the locked room on their wedding night and who did the deed. Along the way are the added multiple mysteries of what was found in a cat’s grave, a gruesome discovery in a charcoal kiln, koto strings being plucked by invisible hands, and a katana sword found embedded in the snow-covered ground with no footprints surrounding the site.

Coincidentally, we are treated to another story in which architecture is featured in the plot. The history of the honjin, the specific architecture of an annexe house (see plan at left), the importance of sliding shutters and tatami mats and folding screens are all spelled out in fascinating detail. In truth none of this is necessary to understand how the story unfolds, why the murders took place or why the method was so complex. What is important here is the search for truth not merely the solution of puzzles. What Yokomizo does so skillfully and artfully is tell us a story of a family plagued with secrets and slowly reveals this to us.

As a debut novel The Honjin Murders is not without flaws. There is an odd Victorian Gentle Reader touch in the narrative. Some of the plot revelations are misplaced and lessen the suspense and overall effectiveness as a novel. But there is much at stake in this story and there is poignancy as well as surprise in the finale.

It should be noted that Yokomizo tells his complex and affecting story in under 200 pages while Shimada’s turgid book comes to 350 pages full of puzzles but not much mystery. Narrative economy is more attractive and often more artful.

Both books are available from Pushkin Vertigo (here and here) and both are translated by the gifted Louise Heal Kawai who does an admirable job of blending contemporary styled dialogue into the Japanese flavor of the narrative sections. In the case of The Honjin Murders much of the narration often reads like miniature history lessons and Kawai makes it both intriguing and easy to understand. In my case she had me eager to learn more…and I did.


  1. 'As some wise guy might say in an American pulp novel when presented with one of these absurd impossible crimes: “Pulling a trigger would’ve been faster and helluva lot easier.”"
    Well, you have hit the nail on the head ! We see the same absurdity in "The 8-mansion Murders". Yet, there are some crazy people who lap up such books !

    1. I will confess that I was a bit caught up in trying to figure it all out. But NO ONE can do that! I can't believe I made it to the end because For the most part the characters drove me crazy. With the exception of the eccentric and sometimes amusing detective/occultist I hated all of Shimada's characters, especially the women who were nothing resembling human beings at all. Everyone was reduced to a type, with limited range of emotion, hardly any complexity: the shrew, the jealous wife, the randy businessman, the handsome student, the dorky student,... Ugh. He can't write fully human characters at all. All he is good at is devising bizarre methods of murder. What's the point?

  2. I've skimmed your summary of the Yokomizo, John, because I'm yet to read it myself, but I'm delighted to see you rate it more highly than the Shimada.

    Shimada is, for me, very changeable -- when I read him, I feel like I almost understand how people feel about my beloved Paul Halter. At times, he's audacious in a way that's gripping and startlingly inventive -- the short story 'The Running Dead', say -- and at others, like Murder in the Crooked House or 'The Executive Who Lost His Mind' I feel, like you, that the puzzle goes a bit too overboard and manages to lose track of the situation it posits. Halter -- to my eye, at least -- seems to be having fun when he does this, but I get the impression with Shimada that he commits to an idea and sees it through no matter how much he needs to scale it up and up and up into the realm of "Er, is this even believable any more?".

    But, as I say, when he's good he's really extremely good, and with Pushkin taking on more shin honkaku as recently reported over at the Locked Room International blog I'm hoping we do see more of his work translated before too long.

    1. I think you will get some enjoyment out of The Honjin Murders. It's so much more human even if it is baroque and bizarre. I didn't discuss much of the plot or the characters at all. No real spoilers. I think I did intentionally ruin the plot of Shimada's novel by revealing the "surprise" without actually explaining the exact solution. I don't care that I did that either. Still, a veteran detective novel fan ought to know that something is up with the slanted floors, the drawbridge to the tower and all the rest of it. I just couldn't piece it all together. But can anyone? When it's all explained you can only roll your eyes and say "OH PUH- LEEZE!" I think it's a huge failure as a detective novel. As a surreal fantasy, however, it's in a class by itself.


      For me, it was the mention of the gaps between the ends of the walkways and the walls. My mind immediately went "Well, there's no reason for that unless you wanted to..." and then all became clear. Especially as there have been, like, 15 mentions of the very specific placements of the vents in each room.


      But, yeah, for sheer lunatic, surreal chutzpah it takes some beating, even if it makes not a jot of sense. I'm a fan of baroque and complex plans and so want to celebrate the magnitude of what Shimada accomplishes here, but...there are plans and there are plans!

      Incidentally, if you've not read 'The Running Dead' -- it was in an EQMM in the last couple of years -- that might convince you more of Shimada's skill in a manner that's rather more playfully believable.

    3. I liked the Tokyo Zodiac Murders but this book was as bad as John says it is. Thank heavens I read a library copy. I won’t risk another book by Shimada though.

  3. "a surreal fantasy"
    You have used the exact words I had in mind. Yet there are impossible crime fanatics who go gaga over such books !

  4. A well-reasoned critique of some Japanese locked room work, John.

    Also, I am glad that you liked the book by Yokomizo. I read his Inugami Clan recently, and--having now seen at least two enthusiastic reviews--am looking forward to reading this new release as well.

    1. I read The Inugami Clan years ago and loved it. It’s much more Gothic —always of great appeal to me —and had so much more going on in it than this very early work. Overall, I am drawn to Yokomizo’s humanistic approach to storytelling than the cold logic and mechanistic plotting of Shimada.

      If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read my enthusiastic review of the other Yokomizo mystery novel. It’s one of the most popular posts on this blog — over 4200 hits at last count. Just click on the “Japanese crime writers” tag to find it quickly. It ought to be the last one in the list. I wrote the post back in 2011, the inaugural year of this blog.

  5. Sounds interesting, John. Hope this comment gets through.