January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

12 thoughts on “January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery”

  1. This sounds like an interesting take on this sort of mystery, Marina Sofia, even if it wasn’t done exactly perfectly. The house itself interests me as the setting, actually. And, like you, I think I would find the psychology interesting. As for the believability, I generally like my disbelief right with me when I read. But sometimes, a story lets you go along for the ride, and that can work, too. Hmm……imperfect or not, I may try this one…

  2. Despite (or maybe even because of) its flaws, this book sounds very up my street – I’ve just put it on hold at the library. I loved Knives Out and I’m always up for a slightly far-fetched solution!

  3. It seems much more modern than the Pushkin Vertigos I’ve come across so far, which has been a rather odd imprint for me so far that somehow hasn’t quite developed a clear identity. Sounds like fun but it’s a pity that the psychology takes a bit of a backseat.

    1. I’ve enjoyed some of the Vertigos and not touched others at all… so yes, perhaps a bit uneven. I usually like an eclectic collection though. And The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, also by this author, was certainly a good read (also published by Pushkin Vertigo).

  4. I read this last January for the JLC12, and I felt very much like you seem to have felt upon finishing it. “An intriguing, but sometimes tedious read” is a perfect description! I seem to remember something about the chrysanthemum pattern in the garden being part of the solution, but really, it’s all too vague for me to come up with an accurate summary of the plot and its resolution. In my opinion, as famous as this novel is, there are many more mysterious and thrilling mysteries by Japanese writers than this one. (For example, I was really caught up in The Aosawa Murders which I just finished and highly recommend!)

  5. I enjoyed this – I probably found it too short to be tedious though I think reading it during the Christmas holidays helped. It’s certainly true the characters could have been developed in a little more depth but I liked the self- referential element.

  6. Some of the titles published by the Vertigo imprint have been pretty good – Frederic Dard, Margaret Millar and Durrenmatt. Somehow this one didn’t really appeal.

  7. Shame it became rather tedious because I like the sound of a murder in that very odd house. You mention Tokyo Zodiac Murders as being more interesting so I shall put my attention onto that one instead…..

  8. Wonderful review, Marina! I didn’t know that there was a Pushkin Vertigo series! So cool! I want to check out their titles. Glad to know that this mystery is good, though some parts of it are not as good as expected. I love a good locked room mystery. This story makes me remember ‘The Judas Window’ by John Dickson Carr. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

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