Godfather of Japanese detective stories inspired by Sherlock

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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.

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