Books

'Murder in the Crooked House': Behind the mask of a classic Japanese murder mystery

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

As a fan and critic of Japanese literature in translation, I would love for every title to be readily available in translation in every language, but for the moment market forces dictate what is translated.

Murder in the Crooked House, by Soji Shimada, Translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
352 pages
PUSHKIN PRESS, Fiction.

Of course, the translator’s passion plays its part too, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. Certainly Louise Heal Kawai, translator of Mieko Kawakami’s “Ms Ice Sandwich” and Soji Shimada’s “Murder in the Crooked House” has found that to be true.

“I’ve had very little success with inquiries to Japanese publishers about books I want to translate,” says Kawai. “All of my published translations to date have been commissions, mostly from Western publishers. Then there have been sample translations for Japanese publishers. My uncommissioned pieces are sitting in my computer, possibly never to find a home.”

“Murder in the Crooked House” was one such commission. “I was approached by Pushkin Vertigo,” says Kawai. “Soji Shimada is well-known in Japan for his honkaku (orthodox) style of murder mysteries. He is popular across Asia — particularly in Taiwan, where there is a mystery award named after him, but he has only just begun to be translated into English.”

Initially she was hesitant to take the project on. “‘Murder in the Crooked House’ is a clever locked-room murder mystery, very well-constructed and a challenge to solve,” says Kawai. “It’s also enjoyable reading and the characters are engaging. However, as a female translator, at first I found it hard to deal with the negative portrayal of the female characters.” It is true that, to a certain extent, the female characters are difficult to like, but as always in murder mysteries, there is much more going on than it first seems.

“Murder in the Crooked House” was written and set in the early 1980s and while it may have been unremarkable at the time, the stereotypes deployed by Shimada can initially seem problematic today. So much so that Kawai was concerned how modern readers would react.

“I briefly wondered whether I should use a pseudonym in order to avoid the criticism that can get transferred to the translator when the reader has not enjoyed some aspect of the book,” says Kawai. “But then I realized that as well as being a murder mystery, this novel is rather comic, and fun is being poked at all of the characters, both male and female. The feckless policemen fail over and over to solve the murders, there is a ruthless company president, an ingratiating salaryman. I concluded that the characters were all to some extent stereotypes and that it was a mistake to single out the portrayal of women for criticism.”

“Murder in the Crooked House” is set on the northern tip of Hokkaido. Kozaburo Hamamoto, the 68-year-old president of Hama Diesel, is hosting an exclusive Christmas party in his remote, idiosyncratic mansion. Designed to his own specifications, the building is something of a maze and leans at strange angles, disorientating the guests to the amusement of the eccentric host. The ensemble cast of powerful industrialists, sycophantic underlings and fawning sexpots is deployed to great comic potential and when guests start dying in inexplicable and possibly supernatural ways, the book becomes an inventive, page-turning comic-thriller.

The adjective “meta” in its postmodern sense wasn’t as ubiquitous in 1982 when the original was published, but it’s useful for describing the book. Set up as a theatrical production with a list of “dramatis personae” and divided into acts and scenes rather than chapters with both an intermission and a moment when the audience and reader are addressed directly, it knowingly plays with levels of fiction and performance.

This playfulness runs through everything, and Kawai’s translation captures Shimada’s sense of fun beautifully. But there’s even more going on. Caught up in a blizzard — metaphorical and literal, since this is winter in Hokkaido — of intrigue and secrets, of accusations and threats, it’s easy to miss the game the author is playing. Japanese are familiar with the concepts of omote (public face) and ura (private face) so it may be more obvious in the original, but the dramatis personae are exactly that: actors.

Each character presents a false face to the others — and consequently to the reader — and it’s to Shimada and Kawai’s great credit that the moments where the masks slip are so deftly handled that there is a danger they will pass the casual reader by. The stereotypes that so worried Kawai early on are merely omote, there to deceive other characters and the reader. The book is full of such trickery.

This is a locked-room murder mystery, yes, and can be read as that alone, but it is also a clever and subtle satire on the rules that bind Japanese society, particularly in the professional sphere.

All too often, a casual glance is all a text is given before opinions are formed. “Murder in the Crooked House” is a reminder that taking the time to be thorough is not only intellectually rewarding but also a hell of a lot of fun.