The Tokyo Zodiac Murders belongs to the popular Japanese honkaku, “orthodox” or “authentic”, subgenre of murder mysteries. Unlike psychological thrillers, honkaku books focus on plotting and clues. The reader is not deceived by the author but actively drawn into the writing and encouraged to participate in the solving of the mystery. These “pure” mysteries also stay away from social criticism, drawing their inspiration from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, whose works inspired the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in Britain, and with whom Shimada has been compared for the complexity of his plots and the elegance of their solutions.
After reading The Tokyo Zodiac Murders I had the sense that the author spent far more time developing clues to the murder mystery than he spent developing the narrative of the search for the killer and the subsequent conclusion to the mystery. Even though it was the story of a mass murder which had not been solved for over forty years—a murder where bodies were mutilated and scattered across Japan following a detailed astrological design—eighty percent of the novel was tedious and boring.
Subsequently I read that this is a popular sub-genre, I suppose following the formulaic mysteries that often meet the requirements of the cliché, “the butler did it.” This was especially obvious when the solution to the mystery required that (most) of the participants meet together for the explanation.
Despite the wisdom and vigor of the amateur detective who solves the case, the real story is the imagination, adherence to detail, and just plain luck that the killer exhibited in a wildly complex scheme to avoid detection. But here again, most of the details of the reasoning behind the murders comes in the form of a sterile letter that is read at the end of the novel.
I suppose there are many aficionados for this kind of mystery novel but it seems to me to be one of the more boring forms and might supply a clue for why I’ve never been able to engender much enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes.
This is one novel which completely ignores the concept attributed to Anton Chekhov of “show, not tell.”