This is another book I got from the recommendation section of I Don’t Even Own a Television. It is an admitted failing of mine that I haven’t read a whole lot of non-western fiction. We own more than a few untouched Haruki Murakami books. I’ve seen a fair amount of Korean and Chinese film, but that’s not at all the same thing. So probably the biggest hurdle I had to get over in reading this was getting past the frequent digressions into memories and emotions and feelings that felt entirely superfluous and bogged down the plot. Western authors don’t approach storytelling the same way as Japanese authors, and it became glaringly obvious that I have been fully stepped in my culture just by reading this slim book. So that is a caveat if you decide to pick this up — if you’re a manga fan you may be better equipped, but just know that if you’ve grown up reading anything even adjacent to the western canon you may get antsy at times, but that’s okay. It’s just different.
The Tokyo Zodiac Mysteries is a traditional, or orthodox, Japanese detective story (honkaku), in which all of the elements needed to solve the case are presented in the story before the protagonist announces the conclusion. So theoretically you could solve the case before, or at the same time, as the detective in the story. This is different from something like a Sherlock Holmes story, where Sherlock has discovered some vital clue away from the main narrative and suddenly presents his solution to the astonishment of all assembled, or the detective is a literal genius and has access to knowledge a layman never could. Honkaku stories revolve around the idea of “fair play,” so a reader is in the same boat as the detective, provided they are able to understand the clues. And if you read a honkaku story the second time after knowing the solution, everything becomes a lot more obvious in retrospect, unlike other detective novels.
So with all that being said, I certainly don’t want to give too much away of the plot. In the broadest details, 40 years ago there was a string of eight murders where most of a family was wiped out — a man, his two daughters, three stepdaughters, and two nieces. A bizarre note was found at one of the crime scenes intimating that the man was intending to sacrifice the young women to make a doll of sorts imbued with astrological symbolism, but he was found murdered (in a locked room) before any of the others. Two amateur detectives decide to take up the case in the present day, and we follow them through their efforts to find what actually happened.
That’s basically the premise. There are two times that the author interrupts late in the story to tell you that you have all the clues necessary to solve the mystery — and you do, although I didn’t have the first idea what any of them were. But in hindsight, with the explanation, it’s all pretty clear. Reading it again, it’s not exactly plain, but it’s certainly not impossible to figure out.
I have to say, having grown up on Sherlock Holmes stories where I really wanted to see if I could figure out the ending ahead of time and never being able to, I rather like this style of story. Maybe if I had approached this as more of a game and less of a book I could have had more luck at trying to solve it, but even just as a book it’s not a bad read. If you like mysteries and are interested in how Japan took the western idea of the detective/mystery story and made it their own, I’d recommend it, and also some research on other honkaku and suiri shōsetsu (deductive reasoning fiction) in general.