The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.

The Blurb

Japanese National Railways runs a special Mystery Train that leaves Tokyo on a Saturday night, scheduled to return the following Monday morning. It has no announced schedule or destination, just the promise of an entertaining trip for the passengers.

This time, the passengers end up getting more “entertainment” than they bargained for. A phone call to railway officials demanding one billion yen in exchange for the safe return of the train and its passengers is thought to be a hoax – until the train fails to arrive at one of its scheduled stops.

Now railway officials really have a mystery train on their hands. How can a twelve-car train just vanish? Where can more than four hundred hostages be kept without being seen?

Clues are scarce and time is short. Nishimura uses masterful plotting and gripping suspense to create an investigation where the police are seemingly always one step behind the kidnappers – until some unexpected twists at the end.

The Verdict

Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.

We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.

My Thoughts

Earlier this year when I reviewed the short story anthology Old Crimes, New Scenes, I remarked on how I wanted to read more Nishimura in translation. Well, in doing my research for that post I learned that one of his many, many novels (there are over 400 apparently) was translated into English in 1990 and after doing a little scouting around I was able to track down a reasonably-priced copy.

The novel is The Mystery Train Disappears – a title that seemed to be suggestive of an impossible crime plot. As such, I was tempted to read and review it for my impossible crime series but having been burned on impossibilities several times lately I decided to go for a sure thing instead and to read this with no expectations. For the record it offers two impossible crimes. First, let’s outline the general scenario:

Japanese National Railways, keen to find ways to reduce its operational deficit, has decided to run a series of special journeys with the exciting hook that the passengers will be traveling to a mystery destination. The promotion seems to be a hit with the railway receiving a huge number of applications for the four hundred seats. A magazine decides that it is a good enough story to send a reporter to write about the trip and a reporter is dispatched, promising his fiancée that he will call her when they reach their first stop. When he fails to do so she is concerned and approaches the railway to ask for details of the trip.

The railway officials feel sure that everything is okay, particularly when they call the museum that the travelers were meant to visit who confirm that the travelers had shown up as expected but when they call the next station they are told that the train never arrived. While there is some speculation that the train may have broken down they learn that other trains have travelled on each of the tracks between the two cities, suggesting that the eight hundred foot train has just vanished off the tracks. As concern seems to grow the train company receives a phone call demanding a ransom payment for the safe return of the train and its passengers.

The disappearance of the train is our first impossible scenario. While I think some explanations will come to mind, the scale of the crime and the challenge of abducting a train when no one knows its eventual destination adds layers of complexity to the situation. I might suggest however that while this is an impossibility, the way it is explored does not really focus on the question of how it was done as the process of following leads to discover where the train and its passengers are now.

Ho-Ling Wong in his excellent post about this book (linked below) notes that a Japanese mystery fan wiki suggests that the solution to how this was done is actually impossible. Even without that knowledge, I think there is something rather underwhelming in how it is described even though I appreciated a few elements of it. I think I might have appreciated it even more though had the publisher provided a map of the line and a timetable to pour over – not that they would necessarily have helped me but it would have made me feel like there was a greater chance of my working out the relationships between the various clues and snippets of information that we are given.

The second impossibility, while shorter and less flashy, struck me as a more compelling one for impossible crime fans to work through. It concerns the ransom money which manages to vanish from the moving train while traveling between stations. The passengers’ luggage is thoroughly searched while the windows are sealed and the baggage train was completely inaccessible, adding to the mystery.

There are times that I feel rather stupid for failing to solve an impossible crime but this is not really one of those. I certainly think that the solution is pretty clever but I never really had a strong enough sense of the space to have been able to imagine what happened. Perhaps that reflects more on me and my lack of regular train travel than the mystery itself as the moment the explanation was given I could see exactly how that would work.

While the novel offers up two impossibilities, the style of the storytelling is all procedural and not unlike taking a mystery train journey. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation is on a set of tracks, offering a clearly defined path with few surprises or diversions. It is also clear that the reader has little chance of drawing any firm conclusions from what they have learned until close to the end. Even when we near that resolution, solving this has less to do with applications of logic or thinking through a problem as it does simply piecing the bits of information we have together and even that feels rather minimal.

The bigger issue is that the investigators themselves feel quite bland and I certainly had little sense of who they were beyond their function in the story. That perhaps reflects that one of the characters had appeared in a number of previous Nishimura stories but it means that there is no sense of personalities within the department – something that can often liven up those moments in a procedural in which the investigators seem to be getting nowhere (which in this book is quite a frequent feeling).

The characters from the railway company perhaps feel a little more defined though here I have an issue with empathizing with those characters. While they are doing the right thing by paying out the ransom, it is hard to sympathize with a company’s prime concern being avoiding a public relations scandal, even if that is quite a realistic view of how many executives would view the situation.

Perhaps the biggest cause of dissatisfaction for me lies in the ending’s novel. Now, I have no intention of spoiling exactly what that resolution is but I think it is worth stressing that there is a decisive part of the ending that happens in spite of the investigation rather than because of it. While such moments are pretty common early in an investigation, it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory to have a key development happen regardless of your protagonists’ involvement and while probably realistic, it struck me as quite anticlimactic.

Overall then my first novel-length Nishimura struck me as rather disappointing. There are some fun ideas here and it offers some appeal points for those who like gentle thrillers and stories involving trains but I found it rather underwhelming in terms of its puzzle plot. That being said, assuming that this isn’t the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist, I still hope that some day I will get to read more of his work in translation. He was so prolific it would be nice to get to know him better.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests lowering your expectations for this one but considers it an ‘interesting curio’.

Ho-Ling Wong shares his thoughts on this book, regarding it as rather underwhelming (and querying why this was the title out of his vast, vast catalog of work to be translated into English).

Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Book Details

Collection published in 2018.
Individual story titles and their publication dates are listed in the story-by-story comments section below.

The Blurb

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

The Verdict

An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

The thirteen stories here (perhaps a murderer’s dozen?) represent over a century of Japanese literary innovation in the genre of mystery fiction.

Foreword by Michael Tangeman

My Thoughts

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen, edited by Frederic Dannay

goldendozen
Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen
Frederic Dannay (ed)
Originally Published 1978

Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen is a collection of twelve short stories selected by Frederic Dannay, one half of the writing team known as Ellery Queen. In the introduction to the volume he mentions how he was approached and asked to select stories from over 2000 that were submitted.

The stories selected showcase a variety of styles and approaches while several stories feature uniquely Japanese elements or ideas. For instance, several stories blend the supernatural with mystery elements while others incorporate “erotic” moments. Some evoke the feel of a traditional puzzle mystery while others would be better described as crime stories.

I was impressed by the general standard of the stories and even the weaker stories possessed some clear point of interest that explained their inclusion. For instance I found No Proof‘s inquest structure felt a little dry while its solution seemed to be flagged far too early but I really enjoyed the idea of someone being scared to death with a cheap gorilla mask.

Several of the stories are really entertaining and imaginative. My pick of the collection is The Kindly Blackmailer in which a barber finds that a new customer intends to blackmail him for his involvement in a hit-and-run. I spent a large part of the story feeling quite puzzled by the logic of the blackmailer’s plan but all of my concerns were addressed by the end of the story and I thought the situation was pretty compelling.

I also particularly enjoyed Devil of a Boy in which a mother suspects a child in her son’s class has sadistic tendencies – some of the developments in that story are really quite clever – while Invitation from the Sea and Cry from the Cliff feature the best puzzles in the collection.

Overall I found this to be excellent value and I appreciated the opportunity to experience some writers who were completely new to me. Individual reviews of each of the short stories follow after the cut. If the idea of this collection interests you I would encourage you to check out the review at The Reader is Warned as Dan’s views of some of these are quite different from mine though we both enjoyed the collection.

Also be sure to check out that post’s comments section where there is some interesting discussion of the genesis of this volume (and that there were several further volumes produced that were never translated into English).