The Tokyo Zodiac Murders starts off with a “last will and testament” written by Heikichi Umezawa in 1936. In this document, he detailed his belief that he is possessed and how he came to the realization that killing six of his daughters and nieces would solve his problems. Using their zodiac signs as a guide, he’d take one body part from each young woman and construct Azoth, the perfect woman.
The story then fast forwards to about 40 years later. Kazumi, a mystery fan, is describing the facts of the Tokyo Zodiac Murders to his friend Kiyoshi, an astrologer and occasional detective. The six young women were, in fact, killed and mutilated in the manner described in Heikichi’s will, but Heikichi couldn’t possibly have done it: he’d been dead for several days prior to the murders. In addition to Heikichi’s murder and the Azoth murders, one of Heikichi’s other stepdaughters was also killed. No one is sure whether that murder was related to the others or not.
After Kiyoshi takes on a client with a distant but potentially embarrassing connection to the case, Kiyoshi and Kazumi end up with a one-week deadline to solve a mystery that no one else has managed to solve in 40 years. Diagrams included throughout the text invite readers to solve the mystery along with them.
If you like trying to solve mysteries before a book’s fictional detective does, you really need to give this a try. It’s an excellent puzzle, and the author even interjects a couple times in order to let readers know when enough information has been included to allow them to solve the mystery. Of course, he interjects late enough that readers have more information than they need, muddying the water a bit, but that’s part of the fun.
The first part, with Heikichi’s will, was particularly strong. Heikichi casually describing why he needed to kill his daughters and nieces was incredibly creepy. I promise, though, that that’s as creepy as the book gets. Although the description of how the murders were actually accomplished was horrifying, the book’s overall tone didn’t have much of a feeling of creepiness, horror, or even urgency to it. Yes, Kiyoshi only had a week to solve the mystery, but the only things at stake, really, were his ego and reputation. Most of the people directly affected by the Tokyo Zodiac Murders were long dead.
There were a few times when I started to lose interest as the book became a little too “two guys talking about the facts of the case,” but for the most part those facts were really interesting. I had all kinds of theories about who might have killed Heikichi and how, how Kazue, Heikichi’s eldest stepdaughter, was involved, and who had killed the other women. None of my theories fit all of the facts of the case, and all my theories were torpedoed after Shimada included one particular document.
Kazumi, who was basically Kiyoshi’s Watson, had some ideas of his own that sounded promising, but I was fairly certain that he’d miss the key detail that would bring everything together. By the time Kiyoshi finally announced that he’d solved the murders, both Kazumi and I were thoroughly lost. It got to the point where I felt like Shimada was practically shoving the finished puzzle under my nose and I still couldn’t solve it. It was frustrating and fun at the same time. If it hadn’t been for work and sleep, I’d probably have read the last part of the book, where everything was finally revealed, all in one go. I can confidently say that I’d never have figured everything out on my own. There were aspects that stretched my suspension of disbelief, but, even so, the solution was really good.
All in all, this was a very enjoyable mystery that kept me guessing until the final revelation. It was very deliberately structured like a puzzle that readers were invited to solve along with Kiyoshi and Kazumi, but, despite the author’s two interjections, it still didn’t feel quite as detached as a couple similar mysteries I can think of. Kiyoshi and Kazumi had some life to them and didn’t just feel like pieces on the author’s gameboard. I particularly enjoyed their conversation about Sherlock Holmes and well-known mystery authors, and Kazumi's enjoyment of various locations in Japan made me wish I could visit them myself.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)