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December 10, 2009

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Godfather of Japanese detective stories inspired by Sherlock

THE godfather, sometimes called the god, of Japanese mystery fiction recently drew crowds of Chinese mystery fans from around the country who came to hail the man who brought back classic detective yarns.

Soji Shimada, a 61-year-old hero to many, drew people from as far away as Hubei, Jiangxi and Hebei provinces to his lecture and book signing at Fudan University in Shanghai on November 28.

They started lining up as early as 9am for the event, the venue had to be changed because of crowds and Shimada didn't finish until 6:30pm.

They applauded, cheered and cried "Bravo" for their favorite "logic mystery" writer who is compared both to Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe.

Shimada represents the honkaku, or the classic (sometimes called orthodox and logical) detective fiction. These are usually who-done-it, including closed-room mysteries.

Honkaku classic mysteries were among the first in Japan in the 1920s, but gave way in the 1960s to mysteries known the "social school" that often featured social realism, pressing issues and political corruption. Policemen rushed about but there was no logical, brilliant detective and clever plotting was not essential.

Shimada's call for rational, logical detective stories went against the prevailing style and he was vigorously criticized - largely for lack of social conscience and neglect of contemporary issues - but he also won many young fans.

In China, contemporary crime and mystery fiction is not well developed, though stories of the supernatural are popular. There are no Chinese counterparts to the many famous Japanese mystery writers. Topics may be too dark, gruesome and troubling for publishers' taste.

30 years of honkaku

As a result, Chinese readers devour Japanese mystery fiction of all kinds.

Shimada says there are good writers in China and he hopes to meet and promote them.

Fans asked Shimada to sign their copies of his most famous works, "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" (1981) and the Detective Mitari and Detective Yoshiki series.

"Zodiac" is available in English and will be published in French next year.

Shimada, born in 1948 in Hiroshima, has spent 30 years working on honkaku. Today he lives in Los Angeles - he says he wanted to escape his celebrity in Japan and get away from the heavy drinking with publishers and editors. He also was drawn by the American car culture. He travels widely, contacting mystery writers, especially in Asia.

Shimada has expressed surprise as the "godfather" and "god" references.

"I've never thought myself that way," he says. "On one hand, it's nice to be popular among young women, on the other hand, the title fuels mystery fiction rivalry in Japan."

He is famous for developing seven "rules" for neoclassic who-done-it murders, especially the closed-room type with a fixed number of suspects. They follow the rational "detection" process, the detective can make mistakes, there can be more murders, the identity of the culprit must come as a surprise, and so on.

Shimada majored in art in college and after graduation chose not to take over his father's electric appliances store. He steeped himself in Western culture, including jazz, rock, the Beatles and art. He studied astrology and is a skilled guitarist.

After releasing the rock album "Lonely Men" in 1976, Shimada hit upon the idea of writing mystery novels. He was inspired by a bank robbery that he himself witnessed. Over the years he has written around 50 books.

His first novel, "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" in 1981 was a bizarre tale of serial murders; bodies were dismembered and then reassembled into one new person.

The book was nominated for an Edogawa Rampo Award, after Japan's great mystery writer of the 1920s.

In the story, Shimada created his most famous detective, Kiyoshi Mitarai, gifted but given to talking too much. He hates his name because it uses the characters for "clean the toilet," though the pronunciation is totally different.

As Mitarai is a rare surname, most people called him "Mr Toilet" when they first met. Shimada explains that he himself was teased by kids who called him "Toilet Soji."

Detective Mitarai has a Western, Sherlock Holmes steel-trap deductive mind. He reflects aspects of Shimada himself and frequently frowns upon certain aspects of the Japanese character.

"The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" shook up the world of Japanese mystery fiction and Shimada says: "It was a very hard time for me. But I said to myself that I must do something and go forward, rather than returning to the time when I produced nothing."

Pressure was enormous. After publishing another novel about Detective Mitarai in 1982, Shimada gave up the series temporarily and started a new series whose main character was Takeshi Yoshiki, a middle-aged policeman. These were "travel mysteries," a popular style in the 1980s.

Shimada never forgot the honkaku mystery, however, and got to know a group of new honkaku writers from Kyoto University in the late 1980s. He mentored and promoted many of them, including influential mystery writers such as Yukito Ayatsuji and Rintaro Norizuki.

In 1987, Ayatsuji published his first book, "Murders At A Ten-Cornered Residence," at the urging of Shimada. To express his thanks, the new author gave his series detective the name Kiyoshi Shimada, taken from both Soji Shimada and Kiyoshi Mitarai.

"Murders At A Ten-Cornered Residence" opened a chapter of the shin-honkaku mystery, or neo-orthodox school.

It calls for a combination of the classic rules of detective fiction, plus more psychology and self-reflection on the part of the detective.

To Shimada's mind, this represented a return to the mystery style of Edgar Allen Poe, one of the earliest and greatest modern mystery writers.

Popular in East Asia

To this day, numerous shin-honkaku writers have emerged. Honkaku mystery has established its own writers' association and awards.

The Mystery Writers of Japan Inc has selected "The Tokyo Zodiac Murders" as one of the top 10 mystery novels in Japan in the 20th century.

Shimada's aim is to promote mystery stories throughout East Asia.

"Detective fiction was created by Anglo-Saxons, but now is developed in the East," he says. Shimada also claims the mystery genre is declining in Europe and North America, replaced by adventure novels and Hollywood movies.

"I hope the orthodox detective story becomes popular again in the West," he says, adding that Asian mysteries could appeal to Western readers.

Taiwan has established the Soji Shimada Logic Mystery Award, every two years honoring outstanding classic detective mysteries on the Chinese mainland and in Taiwan.

Asked at the Fudan University event bout living in the United States, Shimada said:

"I moved because too many people know me in Japan, and frequently editors for the publishing house would call me for drinking. The novels' quality will drop if the writer drinks too much. That's why many Japanese writers choose to move to the countryside for tranquillity," he says.

"After moving to the US, I found my relation with Asia was even closer than before. I have to travel from place to place to find new honkaku mystery writers, my life is rather busy."

In "Soseki and the London Mummy Murders" (1984) Shimada describes Sherlock Holmes as a schizophrenic. Asked about the legendary detective, he says: "In fact I really appreciate him and he influenced me greatly. It was just a joke between friends."


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