Soji Shimada* 島田荘司
Soji Shimada (1948–) made a splashy debut in 1981 with the novel Senseijutsu satsujin jiken (tr. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders). Since then he has played a leading role in encouraging the “logic mystery” genre. He is also known for taking under his wing youthful writers such as Yukito Ayatsuji and Rintaro Norizuki, who came along in the late 1980s, and helping them develop their careers. That Shimada reigned over the world of mystery fiction in Japan for so many years without receiving a major literary award until 2008 is itself mysterious.
Shimada defines the logic mystery as a poetically evocative puzzle combined with subtle logic, in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The work should open with a compelling hook―a confounding mystery with strong elements of fantasy―and proceed to solve it logically. The one who pursues the case is the detective, a role played in Shimada’s works by the great Kiyoshi Mitarai.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was short-listed for the Edogawa Rampo Award, which is given each year to the best mystery by a new writer. Here, the author starts out by brazenly declaring the case “an impossible crime, of a type rarely seen in the world,” and openly challenges the reader to guess the killer’s identity: “Well, who did it?” The murders take place in Tokyo in 1936. A painter named Heikichi Umezawa, who says he is “devil-possessed,” and his married daughter Kazue are each murdered. Then, Heikichi’s four other daughters and two nieces are also murdered and found buried in different places around the country. The murderer has cut up the bodies of the women exactly as described in the notes for a novel left behind by Heikichi.
An avid student of astrology, magic, and alchemy, Heikichi divided the human body into six parts (head, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, and lower legs); he was obsessed with the notion of assembling the astrologically strongest body parts of six different people, each of whom was under a different planetary influence, to make an ideal artificial woman. Each body is missing a different one of the key parts, but no sign of a woman assembled from them ever turns up. None of the murders is ever solved, and the case goes cold. Mitarai, who runs an astrology school, sets out to solve the gruesome mystery in 1979.
A masterful addition to the Detective Mitarai series is Matenro no kaijin (Phantom of the Skyscraper), written with The Phantom of the Opera in mind. While the story maintains the setup of secret maneuvers by a hideous, phantomlike man who lusts after a beautiful young actress, it takes place in an old New York skyscraper; indeed the skyscraper itself is in a sense the main character. In 1969, the iconic American actress Jodie Salinas, at age 74, is on her deathbed in her apartment on the 34th floor of the Central Park Tower. Surrounded by family, she confesses that on a stormy night in 1921, she shot and killed her producer in the first-floor office of that very building. She was originally interviewed as a suspect, but had an alibi for all but the 15 minutes when the elevators had stopped because of a power failure. For her to have descended from the 34th floor and returned 15 minutes later, after committing the crime, was impossible. The case went cold, but now Jodie informs her family that a phantom enabled her to carry out the crime. Mitarai, then an associate professor at Columbia University known for his success in solving mysteries, investigates and learns that the phantom is the architect of the tower, a World War I veteran. He created a hanging garden on the tower rooftop where he took up residence, and from there he killed off Jodie’s rival actresses and enemies one by one, aiding her career from the shadows.
Another series featuring Detective Takeshi Yoshiki of the Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Squad has been running for nearly 30 years now. Kiso, ten o ugokasu (Bizarre Power) is an ambitious installment that delves into social problems. In April 1989, when a 3-percent consumption tax was introduced, Yoshiko Sakurai, the beautiful fiftyish owner of a confectionery, is stabbed to death. The culprit: an old homeless man who, after paying 400 yen for a sweet, became enraged when asked for the 12 yen in tax. Arrested on the spot, he only gives a slight smile and maintains strict silence, not even revealing his name. It is learned that he has a previous record of homicide and was incarcerated 20 years ago. The case is assumed to be a terrible rerun of his former crime, but Yoshiki’s instincts tell him differently. He discovers that the old man is a native Korean who with his brother was forcibly transferred to prewar Japan. The crime he did time for was a false charge, and even his Japanese name, “Ikuo Namekawa,” was slapped on by a corrupt cop determined to pin the rap on him. Yoshiko, the old man, and his brother once belonged to the same circus, and by killing her the old man was avenging her unfaithfulness to his brother after 32 years.
*Senseijutsu satsujin jiken (Kodansha, 1981, 277 pages)
*Kiso, ten o ugokasu (new edition, Kobunsha, 1989, 335 pages)
*Matenro no kaijin (Tokyo Sogensha, 2005, 600 pages)