Friday, October 28, 2022

Murder in the Crooked House (1982/2019) by Soji Shimada (translated by Louise Heal Kawai)

 A crooked man, a crooked hinge, a crooked house…

In 2004, a translation of the debut novel of Soji Shimada, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, made its way into the hands of eager mystery fans. Ever since, we have patiently waited for more of Shimada’s work to drift over here, but outside of a couple of short stories, we had nothing. However, a few years ago Pushkin Vertigo released a translation of Shimada’s second Kiyoshi Mitarai novel, Murder in the Crooked House. But was it worth the wait?

The titular house is the Ice Floe Mansion, the recently-constructed home of Kozaboro Hamamoto, the CEO of Hama Diesel. The house is known as “The Crooked House,” as the house tilts “at an angle of about five or six degrees off the vertical.” It also has a tilted tower made of glass connected to the house by a drawbridge that serves as Hamamoto’s living quarters. Hamamoto invites a handful of people to attend a party over Christmas week, including a business partner, Eikichi Kikuoka, one of the partner’s executives as well as his wife, and two students vying for his daughter’s hand in marriage, among others. It’s a relatively peaceful affair, with the only slight oddity being a pair of stakes in the snow outside, noticed by one of the guests. But come morning, a body is discovered.

Kazuya Ueda is Kikuoka’s chauffeur, a quiet, ex-military man who almost nobody at the party is familiar with. Nonetheless, someone slips into his locked bedroom and stabs him to death, leaving him in a bizarre pose, “almost as if he were dancing,” along with tying his wrist to the bedpost. The door is locked. One window was locked and barred, the other was too high up for a killer to reach. There are no footprints in the snow leading up to the door…and the entrance was on the other side of the house, meaning that any killer would have had to walk a great distance just to get to the locked door. The only opening was a small ventilation hole that was too high to reach, and too small for any killer to use. 

Not to mention the nightmarish face one guest reported outside her window the night of the murder, on the highest floor of the mansion, with no footprints on the snow outside, and the man’s roar heard right afterward, over an hour after the victim was killed…

The police are summoned, although they prove unable to not only solve Ueda’s murder, but to prevent Kikuoka’s. He’s found stabbed to death in his own bedroom, the door not only locked and bolted from the inside, but blocked by a coffee table. Not only do most of the guests lack a motive for the crime, but investigation reveals that all of them, even the ones who would have a motive, have perfect alibis!

There were two aspects of the first murder that I found disappointing. First is the corpse being tied to the bed; the explanation is very poor and has very little to do with the crime. The other is the motive behind the murder; it comes out of nowhere. (Kikuoka's murder has the same problem.) I wouldn't care that much, if it weren't for the fact that the story emphasizes that no one has a reason to kill Ueda and makes it a major part of the mystery. That being said, other than those aspects I quite enjoyed it, especially the explanation for how the killer left no footprints. There are two parts to the trick, and I found one to be very clever; something obvious that I should have thought of, but didn’t. 

Of course, the second murder is the main attraction, and it lives up to the hype. Again, I wasn’t very impressed at first, but upon thinking about it and looking at the map (yes, there is a map in this book), I realized that it was both an update of an old mystery device and a very, very clever trick. The kind of trick where I looked back at the aforementioned map and went, “Oh come on.” In a good way! I’ll admit that this was partly because I went in expecting a dramatic solution; I can’t speak to how I would have reacted if I’d gone in blind. Perhaps I would have liked it less, perhaps I would have loved it more. Is it fair? In a sense. There’s one minor aspect that is not clued, and Shimada is quite cheeky about it, but I feel that it could have been mentioned without giving the game away. The solution is so bombastic that I think that most readers wouldn’t hit on it, even with the extra clue, because it’s so far out of the norm. But I see why Shimada might have been concerned about tipping his hand.

The book brightens up when Mitarai is summoned to help with the investigation. I’d forgotten what he was like from Tokyo, but he wastes no time in utterly dominating the final third of the novel; I’m glad his entrance was delayed, he would have been too much otherwise. There is one more impossible stabbing before the book is out, in circumstances that seem even more impossible than the last one, but while it makes sense in the book and proves to be the set-up for a larger twist, it’s quickly resolved.

I had a slightly mixed reaction to Murder in the Crooked House. After my first read-through, I had a “Well, that was kinda cool, I guess,” reaction. After thinking about it, I then decided that I actually really liked it…before shifting to not liking it. But as of right now, I like it again. I can’t quite explain why the book has this effect on me. I think a combination of being spoiled on the killer’s identity (although incorrectly on the method), the lack of characterization, and the hype I’d built up before the book began (especially this) all worked against it. Like I mentioned earlier, had I gone into it blind, I might be a little more sure about what I think.

It’s very much the mystery novel fan’s mystery novel, with some very baffling mysteries and some equally clever solutions. However, those same qualities that will make it a joy for fans might cause more casual readers to bounce off it; this really should not be anyone’s introduction to the genre. John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books nails it when he says, as a criticism, "It is a series of puzzles with one overarching puzzle that serves as the pièce de résistance." If that sounds amazing, then you'll love it. If not, then I'd stay away from this one.

For those who think they’ll like and appreciate it, it’s Recommended. But my personal opinion is Recommended, with Caveats.

Other reviews: She Reads Novels, The Green Capsule, James Scott ByrnsideBeneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries Ahoy!, Pretty Sinister Books (contains review of The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, also contains spoilers), Criminal Musings (contains review of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, also contains spoilers), The Grandest Game in the World (contains other reviews), and Bad Player's Good Reviews.


  1. Is it even possible to go into this one completely blind? As you said, Murder in the Crooked House had been eagerly anticipated for nearly two decades with only a few short stories in between. So most likely have The Tokyo Zodiac Murders in mind when going into Murder in the Crooked House, which are two entirely different detective novels. I wonder if that influenced the caveated recommendations and how the book will be viewed in 10-15 years time with (hopefully) more translations available to compare.

    1. Mixed reaction aside, I'm happy to read more by Shimada. I'd like to know if my reservations are the result of my expectations, or if he's just not the author for me.