A remote, snow covered mansion; a group of people arriving for a Christmas house party; a seemingly impossible locked-room murder; a detective whose methods are unusual and unorthodox. These may sound like the ingredients of a classic British Golden Age mystery, but Murder in the Crooked House is actually a Japanese novel first published in 1982 which Pushkin Vertigo have now made available for the first time in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.
I was really looking forward to reading this book as it sounded like just my sort of thing, and it did get off to a great start. The descriptions of the Ice Floe Mansion in northern Japan are fascinating, with its sloping floors and drawbridge leading to a leaning tower (which gives the house its nickname, the Crooked House). Inside, the mansion resembles a fairground fun house with a maze of rooms, unusually positioned staircases, and a room containing a collection of Tengu masks and mechanical dolls, including a life-size Golem which is said to get up and walk around at night.
This weird and wonderful building is the home of retired businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has invited his family and friends to spend the Christmas of 1983 with him. The guests include his daughter Eiko and her two suitors Togai and Sasaki, his great-nephew Yoshihiko, and a former business partner Eikichi Kikuoka, who brings several of his employees along with him. On their first night in the Crooked House, one of the guests is found dead inside a locked room, Kikuoka’s secretary is terrified by a face at her top-floor window, and Golem appears to have thrown himself into a snowdrift outside. The local police are baffled; there seems to be no explanation for any of these incidents and no obvious motive either. It is only after several more murders take place and the brilliant detective Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives on the scene that the truth is finally revealed.
Murder in the Crooked House is a very clever murder mystery. I found the culprit easy to guess – there was only one person it could have been, in my opinion – but what I didn’t know was how they carried out the murders. The solution is certainly very original and although Shimada states in a ‘Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book that he has given us all the clues we need to solve it, I will be impressed if any reader has actually managed to work out the exact method used by the murderer! However, the cleverness of the novel was also one of the things I disliked about it.
The book contains a number of diagrams showing floor plans and layouts of rooms and sadly these weren’t included in the ebook I received for review, which obviously wasn’t the finished version. Although Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature came to my rescue and allowed me to at least see the plan of the house, I think even if I’d been able to study all of the diagrams I would still have found the plot overly complicated. As well as a lot of importance being placed on alibis and who was in which room at what time, there’s also a lot of discussion of distances of windows from floors, positions of ventilation holes in walls and which rooms can be reached from which staircase. I do like mysteries with puzzles to solve, but I felt that this one became too technical – too concerned with the details rather than with the characters and their motivations. As a result, the characters seemed to lack depth and didn’t feel like real people to me, which wasn’t helped by the dialogue which felt a bit stilted, although that could have been due to the translation.
Most of the novel is written in the third person, so I was surprised to find that, when Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives at the Crooked House well into the second half of the book, the perspective switches to the first person (from the point of view of Kazumi Ishioka, Mitarai’s friend who has accompanied him to the house). It seemed unusual to have such a change so far into the book, but I got used to it quickly enough. Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Shimada, I’ve learned that this is one of a series of mysteries featuring the partnership of Mitarai and Ishioka, as a sort of Holmes and Watson. I would possibly try another book in the series – the first one, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is also now available in English and presumably some of the others will follow.
Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.
13 thoughts on “Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada”
This one sounds fun nevertheless. I’m putting it on my list. The title by itself makes me want to read it.
The title was what drew me to this book too. I think it’s worth putting on your list.
I like the sound of this one. Especially that crazy crooked mansion. 🙂
Yes, I loved all the descriptions of the mansion!
Aha! I have read some 20th century Japanese mysteries. I have noticed similar things to what you found. I felt it was clear that these authors were imitating the classic Western mysteries while adding that attention to mechanical detail. Perhaps a cultural thing?
This is the only Japanese mystery I’ve read, but I think you’re probably right. I’ve discovered that mysteries like this belong to a subgenre known as honkaku, which focus on plot and detail.
The ‘challenge to the reader’ comes straight out of the Ellery Queen novels. I don’t think I managed to solve any of them.
Yes, I’ve come across a few other mystery writers who have imitated the Ellery Queen ‘challenge to the reader’ too. I can never solve them either!
I’m never too enthusiastic about the type of mystery that relies so much on alibis and locations and so on – I prefer the focus to be on the motivations of the characters. And your job certainly wouldn’t have been made easier by not having the maps and plans! (Not that they ever actually help me to solve a crime anyway… 😉 )
It sounds as though this book probably wouldn’t be for you, then. And yes, it was annoying not to have the maps and plans in the NetGalley copy – but I doubt it would have made any difference anyway!
Sounds to technically detailed to be a good comfort murder mystery; I will hold of on this now! Great review though Jane; it’s a shame though that you had find the maps separately and the whole thing became a tad laborious!
It wasn’t really the sort of book I expected it to be at first. I loved the setting and atmosphere, but I don’t enjoy mysteries with too many technical details!