Murder in the Crooked House is the “who done it?” at its most enjoyable, a sort of high def “who done it?”. Shimada has absorbed the ethos and structure of the format and used it to great effect in this charming and engaging novel. His love of the traditions of the Western detective story, particularly the lone wolf/genius epitomised by Sherlock Holmes, is so evident here. If you are a fan of Conan Doyle you will revel in the open and discreet references to his crime stories, details you will be very familiar with, some you will see in a changed light. Shimada also has a deep understanding of the Golden Age of crime fiction, and an eye for the things that made the best writing of the period so good. Murder in the Crooked House, which has been translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, is an amusingly eccentric locked room mystery with the obligatory small group of suspects and potential victims all under one roof. That fosters the kind of confined and claustrophobic atmosphere that Agatha Christie’s novels returned again and again. Look out for the revealing of poisonous secrets and hidden connections between the guests and the staff. While Shimada is paying respectful homage to an earlier period of crime fiction, he is subverting it, making it more knowing and more modern. He is, after all, writing fifty years later.
Shimada has chosen to directly involved the reader, he has created a game within the novel in which we is asked to play a role. To share the stage with the uncanny and unconventional detective, this is a dare – solve the “who done it?” at the heart of the mystery. There are clues and, of course, red herrings in this puzzle. But just in case you are not a fan of the guessing game this novel still has merit for its clever plotting, page-turning pace and easy style of writing that should be savoured. Murder in the Crooked House also has that distinctly Japanese feel, again observing the traditions passed down from Edogawa Ranpo (Rampo), creator of master detective Kogoró Akechi. Ranpo is every bit as popular in Japan as Edgar Allan Poe is in the United States, but again, Shimada is no slavish follower of the master, he is an inventive adaptor of classic plot devices and styles. The final result is an intriguing mix of Western and the Japanese culture in this murder mystery.
If you are up for the challenge of beating the irregular detective to solving the crime, naturally the local and regional police have failed, the novel is peppered with clues. Strategically placed, subtle signposts to the identity of the killer/s are here, but beware of your first hunch. I love the references to past fiction; Perry Mason crops up, as does the film version of Sleuth (Olivier/Caine), the Anthony Schaffer play, playing at the kind of skulduggery to look out for in this story. You may guess who did it with fifty pages to go, but Shimada reserves the best revelation, the real reasons for these dastardly murders, until the end of the novel. The “why?” comes with a twist. Motive and modus operandi are the prerogative of the master detective Kiyoshi Mitarai. Shimada is a lover of the sleight of hand and the logical solution to a nutty problem. He is a leading writer of the Honkaku school, a mystery format similar to cosy crime in some ways, however, a little bit more bloodthirsty. A style Shimada introduced in his first novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders.
Christmas in Japan is seen as a time for get togethers and for lovers, it isn’t a religious holiday but it is a time for celebration. The novel centres around a get together on Christmas day at a remote location, the guests are happy but the mood is soon spoiled by murder, the first victim will not be the last. I really liked the way Shimada introduces the story. A brief tale of eccentric architecture in Europe; a postman who builds his own house, a reference to Gaudi, and Ludwig II fairy-tale castles. Remember, nothing is randomly placed in this story, there are clues here too.
Japan, Christmas, 1983, the Ice Floe Mansion, the crooked house, sits on a hill on the island of Hokkaido, in the remote north of the island. A three-story building with floors that tilt at a six degree angle and a drawbridge that leads to a leaning tower (Pisa). The owner, Hamamoto, is a collector of automata and the ‘Tengu Room’ contains ancient Japanese masks and a Golem. Hamamoto and his daughter, Eiko, greet their guests, an eclectic mix of older high powered executives, “secretaries” and students; there are staff as well, of course.
They are given a tour of the strange house before settling into their rooms for the night. Kumi screams in terror, she has seen a man at her window, but her room is on the top floor, it must have been a dream. The commotion upsets everyone. The next morning they find the dismembered Golem in the snow and it is a while before they noticed that Kazuya hasn’t emerged from his room. the guests investigate, they break down his door to find him on the floor, one hand tied to the bed, a knife in his chest. The local police are called, a senior officer from the regional Sapporo office follows, but it doesn’t stop the second murder happening. Clueless, the police reluctantly call on Kiyoshi Mitarai from Tokyo, they have their doubts, of course: “He’s extremely strange. A complete nut job.” Mitarai is the only hope of solving the mystery and preventing more deaths, or is he….
An awful lot of fun, a joy for fans of crime fiction history, and a book to curl up with on a cold night.
Paul Burke 4/4
Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782274568 pbk Jan 2019