The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew
Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.
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.
We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.
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.
The Verdict: Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.
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).