This is one of those amazing books that, as soon as you have finished it, you are pushing into the hands of your friends and forcing them to read it immediately. A short, complex and innovative novel, it has an almost perfect balance between character-driven plot and straight analytical mental games that challenge you to unravel the puzzle before the author gives it away. Fans of the murder mystery genre will have a hard time not enjoying "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders".
The story starts off with a powerful hook. In 1936, an old eccentric artist named Heikichi Umezawa has been found dead, leaving behind a last will and confession detailing his obsession with alchemy and astrology, and his plan to construct a perfect woman, named Azoth. His plans are incredibly detailed, but basically involve taking body parts from several astrologically perfect women, then assembling those pieces together in sequence. He is dead before he can put his plans into place, but someone else finishes the deed. The murders are never solved, and remain one of Japan's most studied cases, with amature detectives pouring over the details in the same way as they do with Jack the Ripper nowadays. Fast forward to 1979, where Kazumi Ishioka, a freelance illustrator and fan of mysteries, gleans some new insight into the case and decides to pursue it. He enlists his friend, astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai, and the two begin their dark journey into the mind of the Zodiac murderer, going down roads that seem obvious once the links are made, but appear impossible beforehand.
Author Soji Shimada knows how to construct a good murder mystery. He takes the classic Holmes/Watson team, a fact which he quickly acknowledges in the text of the book, and uses them to hunt an intricate puzzle, based on his own in-depth knowledge as an astrologer. Many mystery staples are here. A locked-door murder. A prime suspect dead before the murders occurred. He takes the basic elements and cliches, gives the reader a nod to let them know that he knows what he is doing, then shuffles them all around until you are completely baffled and utterly enthralled. Especially impressive is his use of multiple writing styles, such as flipping between Heikichi Umezawa insane confession and Ishioka and Mitarai's lighthearted banter. He also makes judicious use of charts and illustrations, even occasionally breaking the fourth wall and personally challenging the reader to solve the mystery before he reveals all in the next chapter.
The only shame with "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" is that it is the only one of Shimada's many "Detective Mitarai Mystery" novels to be translated into English. As soon as you flip the last page, you are going to be hungry for more of the same. Let's hope they they are forthcoming!