Slow Fuse by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Prentis

Book Details

Originally published in 1976 as 深い失速 (Japanese)
English translation first published in 1995

The Blurb

A promising young psychiatrist, Dr. Uemura, is unwillingly plunged into a seedy, film noir world of seduction, obsession, and revenge after a young patient confesses to a brutal murder. Yet his world does not truly spin out of control until he discovers that the “victim” is very much alive.

The Verdict

I loved the initial plot hook of the false confession and the detective story that lies beneath this novel. Unfortunately the psychological thriller elements feel dated and, at times, cringeworthy.


My Thoughts

Long-term readers of this blog may remember that I have previously championed several reprints of Masako Togawa’s thrillers that were part of the Pushkin Vertigo range. For a long time I had hoped that the remaining two English translations (Slow Fuse and A Kiss of Fire) would follow but as it seems that they will not be published any time soon I decided to go ahead and seek out second-hand copies instead.

The book’s protagonist in Slow Fuse is Dr. Uemura, a psychiatrist who has been assigned to the case of Akio Tanno. The novel begins with him calling on Mrs Owada at her apartment concerning a confession that his patient has written in which he claims to have raped and then murdered her with ‘a long weapon’.

It quickly becomes clear that not only is Mrs Owada alive, she also disputes several parts of Akio Tanno’s account. While Uemura is satisfied that the report need not be passed on to the police, he is confused by several other factors of the case and that confusion only grows as he investigates further.

The remainder of the book follows Uemura as he follows up on different threads of the account and tries to make sense of what Tanno actually did. The earliest chapters take a primarily psychological approach, applying a sort of Freudian filter to aspects of the statement, but there is a detective story running underneath that narrative.

The construction of that detective story is quite neat and I was impressed with how well the story clung together when I got to the conclusion. The answers when they come are clear, easy to understand and fairly clued.

As much as I may celebrate the plot’s construction, I do need to say that some aspects of the plot and the themes that are discussed which feel quite dated. For instance, Uemura’s inability to retain a professional distance from the women he interacts with in this case (including a female subordinate in his office) is never really treated as a serious character flaw.

Perhaps the biggest problem though is a sequence in which a female nurse describes how she tried to test to see if the patient was a rapist. That moment just didn’t sit well with me and struck me as profoundly uncomfortable and misguided. I certainly struggled to imagine a real person choosing to make that decision.

That moment struck me as so jarring and incredible that it really pulled me out of the story. On a similar note, the way that almost every single interaction with a female for Dr. Uemura takes on a sexual dimension feels simultaneously both laughable and uncomfortable.

Part of the reason I had held off on tracking down copies of the two out-of-print translations of Togawa’s novels was that I had hoped that at some point they might join The Master Key and The Lady Killer as part of the Pushkin Vertigo range. Having finally read Slow Fuse I think I can understand why it has not joined those two titles.

Where The Master Key and The Lady Killer both feel like multilayered, complex explorations of Japanese society and the relationships between men and women, Slow Fuse feels superficial and often a little juvenile. Meanwhile the psychosexual thriller style feels aged and rooted in a form of sexual politics and gender relations that is very much of the period in which it was originally written. Those other two novels feel relevant today in spite of their strong sense of time and place – this novel, which is far less culturally specific, oddly cannot be separated from that moment.

I still plan on reading A Kiss of Fire – I did just purchase an affordable second-hand copy – but my expectations will probably be much lower now.

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