"Playing as children means playing is the most serious thing in the world."- G.K. Chesterton
Soji Shimada founded a neo-classical movement in Japanese crime literature, referred to as "Shinhonkaku," with the publication of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981), ensconcing a contemporary thriller within the frames of an orthodox detective story, and the only one of his books that's available in English.
Unfortunately, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders continues to this day to be the only one of his mystery novels that made it to the other side of the language barrier, but we can now enjoy a short story, "The Locked House of Pythagoras," in the August, 2013, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The story was adapted from another translation by John Pugmire, whose Locked Room International enriched many of our shelves with a Gallic taste of the impossible. And now LRI is looking at Japan!
"The Locked House of Pythagoras" features the same detective as in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Kiyoshi Mitarai, except for one notable difference, it's set during his school days in 1965 – making this story a predecessor, of sorts, to Japanese high school mysteries like Detective Conan and The Kindaichi Case Files.
Kiyoshi Mitarai is perhaps seven or eight years old at the time of the story and begins to meddle in a gruesome double homicide: a local and well-known artist, Tomitaro Tsuchida, is slaughtered alongside his mistress, Kyoko Amagi, at his two-story studio/apartment. Every door and window were found to be locked/latched from within and there was one set of footprints encircling the house without entering or leaving the premise. Tsuchida and Amagi were found behind the locked door of the guest room, lying side by side on the floor, which was covered perfectly with papers painted bright red. The police arrested Amagi's legal husband, Keikichi Agami, who confessed to the murder without explaining his miraculous escape from the crime scene – meaning that they still have little to hand over to the prosecutor. It looks impossible enough that they might have to consider taken advise from outsiders. Even if that outsider is a child with the attitude of early period Ellery Queen and tells them they've the wrong guy.
|A bloody tour-de-force|
Like in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, Shimada does not bank on one idea or trick but constructs a multi-dimensional puzzle and that seems to be an approached favored by neo-orthodox mystery writers when tackling the locked room problem. They don't just focus on the doors, locks, windows or fool around with the presumptions of witnesses, but manipulate an entire setting in order to create the illusion. Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987) are fine examples of locked room puzzles done on an architectural level, but certain parts also reminded me of Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983) and Paul Doherty's Nightshade (2008). Interesting that these writers, separated by land and language in a pre-(modern)internet era, turned out to have very similar ideas about new ways to lock in on the impossible crime.
If there's one thing to nitpick about this story, as a locked room mystery that is, it's the three separate solution that together explain the entire locked house mystery, because two of them I've seen before and the last one was just lazy. But I hasten to add that the strength of "The Locked House of Pythagoras" lies in the overall solution. There's a smattering of clues and Shimada did a wonderful job motivating why a murderer would stage such an elaborate crime. For something that's just fewer than thirty pages, it's a rich story that will surely find its way into future anthologies and if you can suspend your disbelief to accept that a child can solve a double murder case, there's a lot to enjoy here.