THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS, by Soji Shimada, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie. Tokyo: IBC Publishing, 2004, 252 pp., 2,400 yen (cloth).

THE SPECIAL PRISONER, by Jim Lehrer. New York: Random House, 2000, 230 pp., $23.95 (cloth).

In “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders,” which takes place in 1979, two detectives set out to crack a decades-old (fictitious) crime that has baffled the entire nation. The story is told from the perspective of Kazumi Ishioka, who plays a bumbling Dr. Watson to the brilliant amateur detective, astrologer and fortune teller Kiyoshi Mitarai.

The chronology begins with the murder of artist Heikichi Umezawa on a snowy night in February 1936 — coincidentally the same evening that rebel army officers attempted the famous Feb. 26 coup d’etat.

From this starting point, author Shimada serves up a succession of cryptic astrological clues that allude to the gruesome murders of seven of the dead artist’s female relatives, pushing the narrative along until the killer’s motives and modus operandi are revealed.

In the scheme of historical mysteries, it’s worth noting that four decades is hardly long: the benchmark for modern detectives who delve into the past would be Josephine Tey’s 1951 masterpiece, “A Daughter of Time,” in which a detective hospitalized with a broken leg “investigates” King Richard III’s role in the 15th-century murder of his two nephews.

Still, since the “Tokyo Zodiac” crimes were committed in 1936, most of the shock and horror have worn off, leaving little but the desire to solve a baffling mystery. This, of course, deprives the story of a key element of suspense: the risks that an investigator takes when tracking a killer.

Because the victims are just essential pieces of an intellectual puzzle, the writer must go to extraordinary lengths to hold interest. Indeed, readers feel scant empathy for the victims, whose role of being killed is simply to amuse us as we try to guess “whodunit.”

That said, Shimada’s literary sleights of hand are quite original. Somewhat irritatingly, though, toward the end he playfully teases readers to come up with the solution from the clues, which are all present, but often point in the wrong direction. The slayings of six young women do not really appear feasible — since it certainly could not have been easy to dispose of a half dozen female corpses all around Honshu back in 1936! As Sax Rohmer’s biographer Cay Van Ash used to say, this kind of story may be less of a “whodunit” than a ” how’dhedoit.”

In the book’s favor, the puzzle is intricately constructed and entertainingly exotic. Even more important, the translation by Ross and Shika Mackenzie comes through in lively, natural English; it earns a perfect “10” for readability. This book appeared as part of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, under the auspices of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. A list of other works (most are not mysteries) can be viewed at:


Limits of forgiveness

Sunday, Aug. 15, marks 59 years since the end of the Pacific War. For most of those on both the American and Japanese sides who had roles in the military campaigns of this conflict, the killing came to an end. But imagine, if you will, that you are preparing to board a plane at Dallas-Fort Worth airport when suddenly you recognize the face of an elderly Japanese who brutalized you at a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan back in 1945. And whom you believed you had justifiably murdered at the war’s end. What would you do?

This is the situation that unexpectedly befalls John Quincy Watson, who, as a lanky, redheaded 20-year old pilot, was shot down on a B-29 raid over Tokyo. Humiliated, permanently crippled and sexually emasculated by the camp’s interpreter, a sadistic officer named Tashimoto, Watson, 50 years later, has become a respected Methodist bishop on the verge of retirement, having turned to Christianity in an effort to put his past behind him.

When Watson encounters the man he is convinced was his tormentor from half a century ago, however, the doctrine of forgiveness that he has espoused all these years starts to unravel. Determined to confront the elderly Japanese (whose name indeed turns out to be Tashimoto), he follows the man to San Diego, where, after a hostile exchange — during which the Japanese denies ever having met him — old wartime hatreds flare up once again.

On trial for premeditated homicide, Watson finds he must come to terms not only with his violation of the law, but with the forsaking of his religious oaths. Which is the greater crime? And how does he reconcile them?

Jim Lehrer — a respected news anchor with America’s Public Broadcasting System — adds a new twist to a formula that has been a literary standby since Pierre Boulle’s 1954 work “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

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