With Sherlock back to grace our TV screens this month, there’s no better time to discover another detective book series. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, published in 1981, introduces the reader to the eccentric astrologer-cum-detective Kiyoshi Mitarai and his younger colleague Kazumi Ishioka as they try to crack the mystery behind a grotesque series of murders that have been unsolved for 40 years.
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders opens with a twisted letter of confession from astrology-obsessed artist Heikichi Umezawa, who lays out an intricate plan to murder six of his female family members and combine their various body parts to create the perfect women, Azoth. Before he can carry out his plan, he is murdered, followed by the six women whose bodies are discovered – missing various body parts and buried following the instructions in Heikichi’s letter, – across Japan.
Forty years on, the infamous and grotesque Tokyo Zodiac Murders remain unsolved and are the subject of conspiracy theories and pulp novels. Kazumi Ishioka, a young man obsessed with the murders, pairs up with the eccentric astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai as they try to solve a murder that has puzzled the rest of the country and police for decades.
What makes The Tokyo Zodiac Murders a particularly enjoyable read is the detail of the murders themselves. The reader is soon drowning in information and they have to decide for themselves which parts are relevant and will help them solve the murder – the murder victims’ zodiac signs, the location and depth at which they were buried, which parts of their bodies were missing. If Heikichi could not have committed the murders, who else would go to such lengths to carry out his plans? Was the perfect women, Azoth, ever created?
The author Soji Shimada makes a point of popping up himself in the story to tease the reader with information and challenge them to come to the conclusion. There is a point towards the end where he basically says “ah, you have all the information you need now. The rest is up to you”. I didn’t work out the truth until quite near the end but when I did it was mind-blowing.
The only fault I could really find with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was the use of Kiyoshi and Kazumi themselves. As these are present-day (1970s) characters looking back at a murder that took place 40 years ago, they felt like portals to a more interesting story rather than the main focus for me.
The earlier part of the story also takes place primarily in Kiyoshi’s office, as Kazumi explains the background of the murders to him, so it just feels like two blokes talking in a room. All of this is necessary, however, for the second half of the story. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is the first in a series of novels featuring Kiyoshi Mitarai, so it could be that this particular gripe is rectified and he feels like a more fleshed-out character.
I highly recommend The Tokyo Zodiac Murders to anyone who loves detective fiction and wants to discover a new fictional maverick detective. While some might find the story’s structure and murders overly-complicated in places, it’s a very rewarding read and will keep you guessing right until the end.