When Soji Shimada was in elementary school in Tokyo, he used to spend lunch breaks reading out his detective stories to his classmates. He would try to imitate novels by Edogawa Rampo — one of the country’s most popular mystery writers, whose pen name was derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe.
Inspired by Rampo’s stories about juvenile sleuths, Shimada even formed a club of make-believe detectives. Together, he and his friends would venture into the dark tunnels that started popping up during Tokyo’s construction boom ahead of the 1964 Olympics.
Today, aged 67 and one of Japan’s bestselling mystery writers, Shimada recounts how he would use those boyhood escapades to hone his own detective stories. “The notebook where I wrote down my plots was really my first novel,” he says, sitting in his publisher’s office in Tokyo. “I don’t know if that was the direct catalyst [that made me] a writer, but it gave me confidence.”
Since his school days, Shimada has penned more than 100 books. Fans refer to him as the “God of Mystery” because of his role in reviving classic whodunnit-style stories that focus on logic and reason to solve crimes, instead of more modern preoccupations with motivation and psychology. Readers of Japanese mystery novels compare him with classic British authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. His series of novels featuring Kiyoshi Mitarai, his most popular detective, have sold more than 3.3 million copies in Japan and Shimada shows no signs of slowing down. Mild-mannered and eloquent, he confesses he still stays up all night to write. “If I have any free time, I will be writing. It comes very naturally for me.”
His debut novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, has just been republished in Europe and the US as part of the launch of a new crime imprint from Pushkin Press. The novel caused a sensation when it hit Japan’s bookshelves in 1981. But for its author, the chilling story about the murders of an eccentric painter and seven women has haunted him and his long line of subsequent novels. For decades, he recalls, he felt as if he was fighting the ghost of that first book. “No matter how seriously I wrote, beating my brains out, and no matter how much I believed that this one was the real masterpiece, I could never surpass Zodiac,” he says. “I began to feel that it was not something I wrote and there was a time when I felt like it was my rival.”
It was only as his work gained more international recognition that he slowly reconciled himself with the spectre of his debut book. “I became grateful and I began to feel proud that I came up with such a stunning trick.”
As well as being read widely across Asia, Shimada enjoys celebrity status in China, with more than 690,000 followers on Weibo, a local version of Twitter. In the west, the republication of Zodiac comes after Irish crime writer Adrian McKinty last year included it among his 10 favourite locked-room mysteries — ranking it above Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. A friend sent Shimada a copy of the article. “I couldn’t believe it for a while. I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” he recalls.
But while that novel has endured, so has the controversy sparked by Shimada’s approach to mystery writing. Japan has generated a constant flow of bestselling mystery writers and the popularity of the genre is reinforced by the country’s TV and film industries. But by the 1980s, mainstream Japanese mystery writers had followed similar trends to Europe and the US and distanced themselves from whodunits, puzzles and “locked-room” mysteries in favour of psychological thrillers. Classic detective stories were derided as childish and inferior.
Shimada’s Zodiac was seen as a revolt against that shift. The story belonged to a sub-genre of mystery writing called honkaku, meaning orthodox or authentic. He focused on elaborate plotting and planted clues across the pages, challenging readers to solve the crimes before the protagonist. But it caused a rift with those in the emerging school of Japanese mystery writing. “People feared that releasing this work would return [mystery novels] to the days when they were looked down upon,” Shimada says. “I faced a severe bashing.”
Despite the backlash, Shimada’s success gave rise to a “new orthodox” movement led by younger Japanese mystery writers. “I struggled but there was still a group that enjoyed traditional detective stories,” Shimada says. “In the US and the UK, this genre appears to have declined but in Japan it continues to flourish.”
The author has also had to deal with constant comparisons with his recurring protagonist Mitarai, a moody, guitar-playing scientist who is a detective in his spare time. “In people’s eyes, Mitarai is snobbish. I personally don’t boss [others] around but I was viewed in the same light and misunderstood. But [Conan] Doyle is not Holmes, right?” he says with a chuckle.
Shimada does not hide his fondness for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. “I can tell the story and the date it was written by reading the first paragraph of [any of] Conan Doyle’s works,” he boasts. But while Shimada protests against people’s tendencies to compare him with his work, he offers few clues about his own private life. “I’ve spent a very strange life and it’s not stable,” is all he offers when I asked about his family.
In 1993, he moved to Los Angeles and stayed there for 16 years to escape his fame and get on with the craft. “I feel no stress [when I write]. I want to keep on writing the entire day but here I am being interrupted by interviews.”
More than three decades after his debut, Shimada says his approach to writing has not changed. “It’s always the same. You build the characters, conversations and stories,” he explains. “After Zodiac, a flood of ideas showered upon me and I still have the huge volume of memos that I wrote up frantically. These are not story ideas but tricks for deception.” Almost 60 years on, that schoolboy passion for keeping his readers guessing remains as strong as ever.
Kana Inagaki is an FT Tokyo correspondent
Portrait by Motoyuki Daifu
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published