Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill

Book Details

Originally published in 2012
Rowland Sinclair #3
Preceded by A Decline in Prophets
Followed by Paving the New Road

The Blurb

It is 1933 and wealthy Australian artist Rowland Sinclair is enjoying a leisurely sojourn in the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. As ever, he is accompanied by his entourage – a poet, a fellow painter and a brazen sculptress. The Depression-era troubles of the wider world seem far away. Until long-time Sinclair family ally and employee Harry Simpson disappears.

Rowland must leave for the High Country to find Harry. He encounters resentful stockmen, dangerous gangsters and threatening belligerence all round. With his trusted friends’ help, he uncovers a dark conspiracy which suddenly renders the beautiful Australian outback very sinister…

The Verdict

The characterizations and setting are great. The case however seems to meander a little, making this entertaining but not as good as either preceding novel.


My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my first two outings with Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist who finds himself getting caught up in mysteries while trying to navigate an awkward relationship with his disapproving older brother. I had actually intended to get to this one soon after the last but as often happens with my TBR pile, I find new things to add on top and can lose track of an enjoyable series in favor of the new. Happily I stumbled across it at just the right time, particularly as I felt keen to read a historical mystery, and ended up devouring it in a day.

After having an escape from a group of toughs in his home, Rowland Sinclair is summoned to see his brother Wilfred who makes two requests of him. The first is to cast a vote in his role as a director of a company. The other however is to journey into the High Country in search of an aboriginal employee who disappeared without a trace after being sent to take investigate a matter on Sinclair lands. The people he visited suggest he had gone on walkabout but Wil points out that behavior is quite unlike Harry who is usually responsible and communicative.

The book is at its best in the chapters in which we see Rowland and his friends roughing it in the countryside in search of Harry. This not only inspires some very effective descriptions of the landscape and the isolation of working the land and gives Gentill an opportunity to explore some different types of characters than we have seen in the series up until this point.

One consequence of Rowland being pulled out of his comfortable setting is that it reminds us that we have tended to view him through the lens of his family. In particular, his very conservative brother Wil. Compared to him Rowland certainly comes off as being much more down to earth but when he is thrown into a rough, rural setting we see him struggle to figure out how to talk with and deal with the people (and, quite memorably, the wildlife) he finds there.

Where his previous adventure saw Rowland making a choice to take a cruise that led him into adventure, here he finds himself quite unwillingly drawn into events. While he cares about Harry and wants to make sure he is safe, he is not enthused about undertaking this trip, nor about being pushed to take on additional responsibilities as a company director at an upcoming board meeting. Still, while this adventure will push him into some uncomfortable situations, I think it also works well to demonstrate some sides to his character that we have not really seen before as well as giving us further insight into his early life and that of his deceased brother Aubrey.

All of Rowland’s friends return and make appearances in this story which is welcome. That little family of characters that surround and support Rowland provide much of the series’ energy and heart. There are even some events that threaten to disrupt or at least complicate his relationship with Edna. That relationship still strikes me as quite charming and I will confess to being fully invested in wanting to see that realized (if you have read further in this series than me, please do not spoil me on whether I will be happy with the way it develops).

The relationship that interests me most however is not with his circle of friends but his complicated feelings towards his elder brother. The two men are clearly quite different in temprement, outlook and political sympathies. They have different views on what their role in society should be and how they can best represent their family. At times their relationship can become quite acrimonious and bitter – indeed, we get several such moments in this story. Yet you also see the bond the two men have, their shared experiences, and I am always struck by how real that relationship seems. That relationship seems to sit at the heart of this series – at least in these early installments – and it is this aspect of the books that I am most curious to see how it develops.

As much as I love the character content and the setting, I do have to comment on the mystery plot itself and here I am afraid I was a little disappointed. I have already indicated that I think the early part of the book with Rowly investigating the disappearance is really quite effective and engaging. The problems for me occur in the book’s back half. That is partly because the action relocates to the city, taking away the book’s most distinctive element, but it is also because the villain of the piece did not strike me as particularly convincing or stand up well in comparison with those in the first two books while their motivations felt somewhat generic.

The other reason I think the second half is weaker than the first is that Rowland loses his direct motivation to become engaged with the mystery. That is reflected in how he seems to become responsive rather than proactive from this point in the story and from that point on things seem to happen to him rather than feeling like he is choosing to engage with a mystery.

Still, Rowland remains a really fantastic creation and while I think this case is uneven, I cannot help but admire Gentill’s approach to characterization or giving us a sense of Australian society in the 1930s. While I preferred the first two novels which set a very high standard, the good bits here are very good. I feel keen to see how this series continues to develop and I look forward to reading the next installment – Paving the New Road – to see what the rest of this tumultous decade has in store for the Sinclair brothers.

Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Book Details

Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤
English language translation published in 2020
Prior to the release of the translation this book’s title was more often translated as Seven Years of Night and the film adaptation had a limited release in the US under that title.

The Blurb

A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.

At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.

When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.

For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.

The Verdict

This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.


My Thoughts

Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.

We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.

Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.

Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.

I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.

There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.

The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.

The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.

The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.

I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.

I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…

Death of a Telenovela Star by Teresa Dovalpage

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

Former Havana detective Marlene Martínez, now happily running a bakery in Miami, has booked a week-long cruise to Mexico and the Caribbean with her niece, Sarita, as the girl’s quinceañera present. Sarita is beyond thrilled to discover that a Cuban telenovela star, Carloalberto, is also aboard for the trip.

But even while trying to keep her niece away from the unsettlingly handsome actor, Marlene gets the feeling Carloalberto is in some kind of trouble—he is constantly on edge, and shady characters seem to find their way to him. When murder occurs aboard the North Star, Marlene will rely on instincts she hoped never to use again.

The Verdict

An entertaining amuse-bouche of a story. The characters feel relatable and the writing style is often amusing but be aware that the mystery often drifts out of focus.


My Thoughts

Death of a Telenovela Star was a bit of a happy accident. I had ordered it from the library having missed the words ‘a novella’ that is clearly written on the cover. I was surprised when I went to collect it to find it was a much slimmer book than I was expecting. Whoops. Totally my mistake. Happily it met my exact needs for this week as I found myself ludicrously busy with a work project and I was able to devour it while waiting to pick up my daughter outside of a class.

The story is told from the perspective of Marlene who prior to opening a bakery in Miami had worked in Havana as a detective. We find her as she is about to embark on a celebratory cruise with her niece Sarita to mark her fifteenth birthday. Marlene has been told to keep a wary eye on her niece who had a bad start to her school year after falling in with a bad crowd but is looking forward to relaxing and seeing some Mayan sites.

Sarita is delighted to find that a very minor celebrity, c-list telenovela star Carloalberto, is also a passenger on the trip along with his glamorous wife. Marlene however can’t help but notice a tense exchange between the actor and a group of toughs as well as some strange behavior during the trip.

Carloalberto is the telenovela star that the title accurately tells us will die by the end. This happens late enough in the story that I do not think I can describe any of the circumstances of that death except to say that Marlene does not really have to enter into an investigation. Rather she is able to piece together what she has observed during the trip to explain what has happened.

While the death is highlighted in the title, much of what Marlene notices occurs in the background of the story in scheduled excursions or venues aboard the ship. Instead the experience of being on the cruise and trying to decode her niece’s cryptic WhatsApp messages are assigned similar (if not greater) weight in the story. This didn’t bother me. The travel aspects of the story had the greatest appeal to me with the discussions of Mayan history and culture as well as the exploration of Marlene’s own personal history.

Those looking solely for a murder story may be a little disappointed. Carloalberto’s death takes place largely in the background and ends up being fairly straightforward. That reflects that there really isn’t the space to develop many suspects or to have a character dig up information. Clues largely fall into Marlene’s lap and it is not hard to piece together what happened, although one of the biggest clues is only provided right at the point of accusation. In spite of that however I will say that I liked the overall tone of the ending and the way it reflects some of the other things we have learned during the story.

Overall I quite enjoyed Death of a Telenovela Star, even though its murder plot does not feel like its primary focus. The story is told in an engaging and sometimes quite humorous way and I appreciated that it actually felt that the characters were travelling, making stops and interacting with historic and cultural sites rather than just being a way to create a closed circle for a murder.

It certainly interests me enough that I plan to seek out one of Dovalpage’s full-length mysteries. One thing I am curious to see is whether any of the characters here have a presence in either of those two novels, all of which are branded as A Havana Mystery on Amazon. I could imagine Marlene would work well in a longer book as she has both an intriguing past and actual detective skills to draw upon.

Confession of Murder (Film)

Film Details

Originally released in 2012 as 내가 살인범이다
Released as Confession of Murder in English translation in 2013

Written by Jeong Byeong-gil and Hong Won-Chan
Directed by Jeong Byeong-gil
Starring Jeong Jae-yeong, Park Shi-hoo, Jung Hae-Kyun, Kim Yeong-ae, Choi Won-young, Kim Jong-goo

The Blurb

He’s a killer. He didn’t get caught. And he’s about to be famous.

When the statute of limitations expires on a series of high-profile murders, a handsome and mysterious young man emerges with a tell-all book, taking credit for the crimes. As he seduces the media into following him to book signings and televised debates, the officer who hunted him falls deeper into obsession, and the victims’ families plot their own revenge.

The Verdict

A decent action thriller with an entertaining concept and a very good performance from Park Si-hoo.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog know that I am always on the lookout for inverted crime stories so when I stumbled onto a copy of Confession of Murder, a Korean crime film made in 2012, I hoped I was onto a winner. I soon realized that this would actually be more of a cat and mouse style thriller with heavy action elements but I was interested enough with the scenario to stick with it and see how the situation would be resolved.

The film begins in 1990 and introduces us to Choi Hyeong-goo (Jung Jae-yeong), a detective who is trying to catch a serial killer who has already killed ten women and suspected of kidnapping and killing another. After tracking them down a chase ensues across rooftops and through back alleys, leading to an intense fight that leaves the killer with a bullet in their shoulder and Hyeong-goo with a deep scar across one side of his mouth.

We then jump forwards in time to the point at which the statute of limitations on these murders has expired. Hyeong-goo is still working for the police but he cannot move past his failure to solve this case, drinking heavily. He learns that a handsome young man, Lee Doo-seok (Park Si-hoo) has released a memoir I Am The Murderer in which he claims responsibility for the crimes, revealing details that were unknown to the public. He even reveals a scar and a bullet matching those fired from Hyeong-goo’s gun in his shoulder during his televised book launch. This creates a media sensation and he receives plenty of press coverage as he makes public visits to the homes of each of the victims’ families to kneel and beg for forgiveness.

Hyeong-goo refuses to believe Doo-seok’s account, questioning what happened to the abducted and presumably murdered final victim’s body. Doo-seok meanwhile claims that this was carried out by a copycat, only accepting responsibility for the first ten crimes. Did Doo-seok really commit the crimes? If he did not really do the murders, how did he learn those undisclosed details and why is he coming forward?

It was these questions about Doo-seok’s motivations in coming forward and the way he seems to get under the skin of Hyeong-goo in their early interactions that really drew me into the film. While I have seen versions of the serial killer manipulating the detective investigating them before in other films and television series, I was intrigued by the ambiguity as to whether he really believes Doo-seok is telling the truth about the murders – something that is sustained very effectively until the film’s conclusion.

It helps that Park Si-hoo (shown above, right) gives a superb performance that successfully plays on that ambiguity. An example of this comes in an early sequence where he visits the father of one of the victims to beg forgiveness. Both the direction and performance of that scene do a great job of conveying what the media covering the event can capture and what the only man facing him can see in his body language. Moments like this are done very well and help establish him as a compelling antagonist for the detective.

One interesting idea that is hinted at but perhaps underdeveloped is that the media’s discussion of a case and the public’s reaction to it may differ based on the personalities or the physical attributes of the people involved. We do get several glimpses at the media executives who are choosing how to develop and portray their coverage of the incident. There are several points where we see that Doo-seok is treated with surprising sympathy in the interviews he gives with the implication being that he is presented that way in response to his appearance while it is disturbing to see some crowds gathering where people are holding signs and banners expressing their admiration for him, clearly based on the way he looks.

One interesting difference from the usual structure of these sorts of cat and mouse thrillers is that where typically we tend to view these sorts of stories being about two people or groups in opposition to each other, this film introduces a third actor who influence and interfere with the case. Early in the film we are introduced to a group of family members of the victims who have banded together to plan and execute their own plan to kidnap Doo-seok and exact their vengeance on him.

The introduction of this third group adds interest to the setup, often creating complications for both Hyeong-goo and Doo-seok. One of the most memorable set pieces in the film involves all three groups as we see the families try to put their plan into effect only to find that Hyeong-goo accidentally becomes caught up in them when he crosses their path. Though I felt sure I knew how this piece would ultimately end, it did provide some additional excitement and unpredictability along the way.

The abduction sequence is, for me, the most successful of the film’s action set pieces. Firstly, because it presents the action and movements from the perspectives of each of the three groups clearly, making it clear not only what is happening but what each group thinks is happening. While I think some of the elements of their plan are a little wild (specifically involving the use of a group of animals), this does lead to some really striking shot composition while the high speed vehicle chase that follows features some really impressive camera and exciting stunt work, even though the movements shown often strain belief.

The film’s other action sequences offer varying levels of interest and technique. Typically these are well-shot in the sense that you can always follow what is happening in spite of the quick pacing and use of multiple elements but the attempts to add artistic flourishes to some sequences can fall a little flat. There is a repeated use of a camera that follows a crossbow bolt in slow motion towards its target that feels videogamey while some camera movements struck me as unnecessarily convoluted and sometimes unintentionally comical.

While I think that the tone of the piece is dark and moody, there are a few moments that I think represent deliberate attempts at comedy. Most of these are along the lines of seemingly bizarre and unexpected developments as part of a chase or action sequence along the lines of those found in Bond action sequences. There is one overtly comedic sequence though which I feel really doesn’t work where a character is attacked while urinating in a field, in part because of the gross out element but also because the action sequence that follows is one of those that feels particularly overdirected.

Though I think Confession of Murder does a good job of exploring its characters’ feelings around a theme, those characterizations are often quite shallow, particularly beyond the two central characters. This is most clear in the case of the victims’ families who are portrayed with humanity and feeling but are given little development beyond a signature quality or skill they have (animal handling, archery, driving an expensive car, knife skills and having lots of money). This is not unexpected for an action thriller but it is a little disappointing given that these characters should surely have deeper feelings about their experiences and loss. What little we do get is presented retrospectively, suggesting that the storytelling focus here is on the plot rather than character development.

In spite of those complaints, I did find quite a bit I enjoyed about the film. The performances are generally good and I did get caught up in trying to figure out exactly how the story could be resolved. The solution is obvious in retrospect but because of the film’s pace, it is easy to get swept up in the action and miss hints that point to some of the twists and reveals.

While Confession of Murder was perhaps not the film I was expecting, I did find it entertaining and I am curious enough that I may well go and seek out the Japanese (Memoirs of a Murderer) or South Indian (Angels) versions to see how they compare.

Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published as 告白 in 2008
English language translation published in 2014

The Blurb

HER PUPILS KILLED HER DAUGHTER.
NOW, SHE WILL HAVE HER REVENGE.

After calling off her engagement in wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.

But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.

The Verdict

A powerful, fascinating and utterly devastating read. The subject matter is much darker than I typically like but it is handled very well.


My Thoughts

Kanae Minato’s Confessions begins with Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school homeroom teacher, addressing her class. She informs them that she will be retiring from the profession and describes how and why she has come to that decision. The students are already aware that her four year-old daughter Manami had been found drowned several weeks earlier in the school’s swimming pool. What really shocks them is when she tells them that two of their number were responsible for the death. As she puts it, two of them murdered her daughter.

This chapter, delivered in the second person as though speaking to the whole class, outlines what Yuko has discovered in her investigation. She doesn’t directly name names, though the identities of students A and B are easily inferred and confirmed in the following chapter, but she takes us through the core events that led to these two teenagers killing her daughter. Her account is extremely thorough though the one thing it misses is an understanding of why the murder happened.

The subsequent chapters are each told from the perspectives of other characters including, eventually, the two boys in question. An effect of telling the story from these multiple perspectives is that it feels like we are circling ever more tightly around the explanation, getting closer to an understanding with each fresh perspective until we finally hear from the chief instigator himself and see exactly why he wanted to commit such an appalling crime.

The book’s title, Confessions, is extremely apt. Each of the chapters is told in a slightly different style though in the second person. The intended audience is different each time – one account is written as a letter, another a diary, another a spoken confessional with the last being a blog entry. This gives the text a really direct feeling, involving the reader in the events and making them feel that the two guilty boys might be someone we know or that we might be complicit in some of what happened.

This second person approach is unusual in books for a reason. It is extremely difficult to do well and sustain but the creation of these multiple viewpoints makes it work. It is particularly effective when read aloud so I can certainly recommend the audiobook version of this book which is read by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin. That first chapter in particular feels quite arresting and while I wish a different narrator had been used for each chapter to really drive home the effect, I think simply having a male and female reader works well enough and both performers read skillfully.

While there is a certain amount of revisiting of the same events, these multiple perspectives are skillfully crafted to avoid repeating points too frequently. Events are often discussed tangentially or reframed as parts of different discussions based on what is most important to that character. To give an example, four of the accounts mention an incident in which Yuko had refused to buy an item for her daughter and yet only her own account describes that exchange. The others pass judgment or see an opportunity in that moment but without recapping most of what actually happened.

These chapters flesh out motivations and our understanding of each of the characters. In some cases we can see how and why one character comes to believe or interpret an event in a particular way, even though we possess information that would suggest something different. The strongest examples of this come in a chapter narrated by the mother of one of the boys which is full of statements that fundamentally misinterpret what she is witnessing. The reader has information that she does not which allows us to see the flaw in her thinking, but those flawed assumptions are just as important to our understanding of what happened as the truth.

Confessions does not encourage us to have any sympathy at all for these two boys. What they do is awful and terribly upsetting. I have mentioned before that I find stories featuring violence towards children difficult to read and this was no exception, probably explaining why it has sat for quite some time on my TBR pile. I expected to find this a difficult read and it was. There are no happy endings here which is appropriate – if there were it would feel horribly contrived or misjudging of the mood – and I think the reader may well reach the end and question whether every action taken was appropriate. Whether there was any justice, if not, and whether there could have been any justice.

These two boys are clearly to blame for what happened and yet what this book does encourage us to do is see the forces that made them who they are. After learning the facts of the case we see how easily this scenario could have turned out very differently. Their guilt does not preclude the possibility that others may be guilty too.

Nor are there any heroes. I can think of just two characters depicted in a positive or noble light. One is the murdered daughter Manami who is a very typical four year old – occasionally petulant or naughty but also sweet and loving. The other is a man who remains in the background throughout the story, frequently referred to but never really active in what goes on. Everyone else we encounter is rendered in shades of grey and be prepared – Minato presses down pretty hard with her pencil at times to give us some pretty dark renderings.

In addition to exploring the characters she creates, Minato also explores a variety of themes relating to justice, punishment, parenthood, collective responsibility and the glorification of criminals. While the details of these issues are often specific to Japan, the broader discussions are universal and I think most readers will be able to draw easy parallels to similar issues or cases in their own cultural experience.

The one theme that may be less accessible to western readers is its discussion of hikikomori, adolescent and adult shut-ins and, in particular, the way society perceives that group. I think Minato describes the anxiety and social judgment around this topic well enough that readers who are unfamiliar with the idea will get the jist of what is being discussed but some may find it helpful though to have an understanding of the term to better understand that anxiety and characters’ responses to it given how important it is to the second and third chapters of the book. This 15 minute English-language report from France24 offers a basic overview, as does this much shorter overview from Crunchyroll aimed at anime viewers.

This richness of theme coupled with interesting and complicated characters makes for a really potent read that left me rather shaken. Indeed I can’t help but note that it has taken me longer to write my thoughts about the book than it took me to read it – a mark of when a book has really made an impression on me. It is in my opinion a rather fine example of the whydunnit type of inverted mystery story, exploring how multiple influences can come together to create a truly devastating situation.

Confessions will not be for everyone. It is a really dark book that offers no hope or positivity for the reader to really grasp onto. At its end I was left feeling uncomfortable and terribly sad about what I had just read. Still, in spite of that darkness and that sadness, I think the book was fundamentally about something big and important: our notion of justice, punishment and how we choose to assign blame for crime. This book does not offer answers but it does pose some difficult questions that will linger with me for some time to come.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

At the age of twelve, Eve Black was the only member of her family to survive an encounter with serial attacker the Nothing Man. Now an adult, she is obsessed with identifying the man who destroyed her life.

Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle has just started reading The Nothing Man—the true-crime memoir Eve has written about her efforts to track down her family’s killer. As he turns each page, his rage grows. Because Jim’s not just interested in reading about the Nothing Man. He is the Nothing Man.

Jim soon begins to realize how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first …

The Verdict

A clever premise elevates this serial killer tale though I found the survivor a much more compelling character than her tormentor.


My Thoughts

I think I have mentioned before that serial killer stories aren’t usually my sort of thing. I am not sure if it reflects that they are often more graphically violent or that the motivations to kill are often weaker and rather repetitive but I rarely seek these sorts of stories out.

There are, of course, a few exceptions though. I suppose several of Jim Thompson’s stories would technically constitute serial killer stories and yet I have happily sought those out. I suspect that reflects that I find the characters to be quite rich and that character’s perspective is usually shared with the reader. I also enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View which closely follows the character of a retired serial killer. It is primarily then with that interest in stories that follow the killer that I picked up a copy of Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest book The Nothing Man after reading a review of it a week or two ago on Puzzle Doctor’s excellent blog In Search of the Classic Mystery.

The Nothing Man was a serial killer who was responsible for a series of rapes and murders in County Cork at the start of the twenty first century. This series of killing culminated in the murder of two parents and one child in their home with one survivor, Eve, who was also a child at the time. No one was ever caught and the Gardai never had any strong leads as to the killer’s identity. Years later she decides to write a book about her experiences and those of the other victims in the hope that it might reignite interest in the case and lead to the killer’s capture.

Supermarket security guard Jim was the Nothing Man. He is shocked one day when he sees customers carrying books about the murders he carried out and realizing that he may be in danger, he acquires a copy and settles down to read Eve’s account to see exactly what she remembers.

Howard utilizes a story within a story framing structure, going so far as to reproduce a book cover and copyright page for Eve’s book within her own to add to the illusion. We get big chunks of that book reproduced here, not only presenting us with some of the facts about those murders but also introducing us to the character of Eve and describing how the events affected her and how she came to want to share her own experiences. This is done very well and I think Howard manages to write those passages in a noticeably different voice to those in which we follow Jim (as well as typeface), which adds to the distinction between these sections.

From time to time Howard interupts the Nothing Man book excerpts to show us Jim’s reactions to what he is reading. These cutaways are typically quite short but they do serve to remind us that this story will conclude in the present day. For the most part I feel that this technique works well enough to justify its use although I will admit to feeling that the passages featuring Jim as he is reading the book are probably the least interesting part of the novel for me. This is because I feel that they rarely change our perception of what we have read or move the story in a different direction. They are short enough however to be fairly unobtrusive and my interest in his reactions picks up considerably from the point where the book begins to detail her own encounter with Jim.

The accounts of each of the attacks are presented in sequence so we do get a sense of seeing the Nowhere Man develop as he becomes a murderer. This does not give us an understanding of the forces that made him a murderer in the first place but there is a clear sense that we are building towards Eve’s own incident, increasing anticipation of that moment. As you might expect from a story that features multiple instances of rape and a child murder, these accounts may prove uncomfortable reading and while the actions are not described in much detail they may be upsetting for some readers.

The bits of the story that Eve cannot relate tend to be wrapped up in the question of the Nowhere Man’s identity and so the answers end up coming from Jim. Not that he is particularly talkative. His sections of the book are presented with third person narration and it is that narrator who fills in the gaps and explains some of the missing connections. My feeling is that answers are given for most of the questions I had, though I did not always find them as satisfying as I would have hoped. We learn of shaping incidents that created the killer and certainly get a good understanding of his methods both of selecting victims and also committing his murders.

One question that I think doesn’t get answered as well as I would like is Jim’s reasons for stopping. I think those reasons are implied well enough for the reader to be able to connect the dots but it would have been nice to have been given a fuller account of that part of Jim’s story, particularly given one of the later revelations in the book.

I remarked earlier how my interest in Jim’s story grew once we get to Eve’s own incident in her book and I feel that the same could be said of the book as a whole. From this point onwards I think the story seems to open up and some interesting questions and ideas are introduced. Of course, coming late in the novel keeps me from discussing them in any kind of detail but I appreciated the introduction of another perspective and a question that Jim has concerning Eve’s account of that night. That these ideas coincide with some action only serves to elevate that ending and make it feel more impactful.

That ending is quite tense and I was interested to discover how Jim and Eve’s stories would be resolved. I cannot claim to be all that surprised by many of the developments but I did find the answers to those questions that are raised to be quite satisfying.

So, how did I feel about The Nowhere Man? Keeping in mind that serial killer stories aren’t my thing, I am certainly glad I gave it a try though I am glad I was able to finish it with the lights on! As killers go, I did not find Jim to be an especially compelling figure. Instead I found myself much more interested in Eve, the survivor and her journey to take some control of her life. That may not have been exactly what I was expecting to find when I picked up the book but it was enough to keep me engaged and, coupled with the book’s creative premise, make me feel like my time was well spent.

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Book Details

Originally published in 1946 as 本陣殺人事件
English language translation by Louise Heal Kawai first published in 2019

Kosuke Kindaichi #1
Followed by Gokumonto / 獄門島 (Not currently translated into English)

The Blurb

In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.

Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.

The Verdict

An interesting murder story told in a journalistic style. The murder mechanism is a little much for me, but Yokomizo’s choice of killer and exploration of their motivations are excellent.


My Thoughts

I had been envious of all of my friends based in Britain who were able to get access to The Honjin Murders when it was released there several months ago. Those of us who are Stateside had to wait several months for its US publication date, only adding to my anticipation, as did the recent episode of In GAD We Trust featuring the book’s translator, Louise Heal Kawai. So, could The Honjin Murders live up to its enormous hype as one of the best examples of a Japanese locked room mystery?

The book is presented as a true crime account written by a journalist about events that had taken place in the village of Okamura many years earlier. At the point at which the story starts, those events are distant enough that the grounds of the Ichiyanagi home have become overgrown and some of the buildings have fallen badly into disrepair. The solution to the case is known, though naturally the narrator holds back on providing it until the end of the account.

The mystery concerns the death of the first son of the Ichiyanagi family and his bride on the night of their wedding. In the early hours of the morning a scream is heard followed by the frenzied playing of a koto, a stringed instrument, coming from the annex building in which the young couple were staying. Those who go to check on the couple find that the building is locked and the couple brutally slaughtered inside. Outside a katana is found thrust into the frozen ground in the middle of the garden with no footprints on the snow around it.

The bride’s uncle takes charge and summons a young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who happens to be in the area to come and investigate the crime scene. He has to not only explain how someone was able to commit the murder inside the locked room and get away without leaving any footprints in the snow but also why the crime was committed in the first place.

There are several intriguing lines of inquiry for Kindaichi to pursue. The marriage was unpopular with the Inchiyanagi family who felt that the bride was not of a suitable standing. The son had unexpectedly retired from his academic life yet the reasons were confusing. And then there was the strange three-fingered warrior who was observed in the village asking about the estate.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this book is the short time period in which the investigative phase of the novel takes place. Much of the book is spent describing the events leading up to the death with the actual investigation really being contained within the second half of the novel. While the means by which the crime is committed is technically complex, Kindaichi seems to quickly assess the scene and the investigation is restricted to a handful of interviews and physical examination of the space.

The most obvious comparison to make with Kindaichi is Sherlock Holmes. There are some aspects of Kindaichi’s character that seem to directly reference the Great Detective, such as his history of substance abuse and his unusual status as a private consulting detective. Both men seem to instinctively read a crime scene and make judgments of those they interact with, though I would suggest that Kindaichi is a softer, more humane character in his interactions with those other characters.

The narrator clearly admires Kindaichi, though he does not know him. We are aware that he will solve this case but a consequence of this distance is that we never really get inside the detective’s head or get a broader understanding of his character. The focus then falls on the strange series of events which thankfully are intriguing enough to be worthy of that interest but it does mean that I did not put this down feeling attached to the sleuth. While I am keen to read The Inugami Curse, I do not feel particularly attached to Kindaichi yet and will be reading it primarily for the author’s skill at plotting.

On the other hand the journalistic approach does result in a very tight narrative that focuses on the most pertinent points of the investigation. I feel that this works well with this sort of impossible crime tale and it does mean that we can trust that we are being given everything we need to solve the crime.

Of course, having said that I think I should say that I would be surprised if anyone could work out exactly how this particular crime was carried out. The mechanics of the murder are extremely complex and while I think they are well described, I certainly had no clue how the murder could have been worked.

The question of who did it and why however is much fairer. There are plenty of clues, some physical and some psychological, to point to the guilty party and their motivation to kill. While I was not surprised by those aspects of the explanation, I felt that the reasons given were quite satisfying.

I will say however that the impossible crime aspects of the novel are perhaps the least rewarding parts of the book. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the mystery or its resolution, but I can imagine that readers may well find the explanation rather convoluted and too complex to easily imagine. Certainly I did not come close, though I must admit that I am not a reader who can easily visualize a scene, even when it is described well (as is the case here). I found that I had some sympathy for a character in the novel who is an avid reader of locked room mysteries who laments stories that rely on mechanical explanations, a charge which I feel can be fairly levelled at this book.

Still, while I may not have been able to effectively play at armchair sleuth I did enjoy following along with this investigation and observing how Kindaichi is able to piece the details of the crime together. His account of what happened, while quite far-fetched, does feel like it ties up all of the important plot points well.

In my opinion, Yokomizo creates an interesting mix of characters and there are several moments in the plot that I found quite striking and, in at least one case, quite chilling. There is one strand of the story that seems to infer the supernatural and while I can assure readers that the real explanation of the crime is quite rational, I felt that those aspects of the plot were introduced quite effectively.

I already had a copy of the author’s The Inugami Curse on preorder and I am happy to report that I do not regret that decision. This story had enough striking images and ideas to capture my imagination and I found the explanation of the crime to be both inventive and quite compelling. Is it a perfect impossible crime story? Perhaps not, but I do think it is interesting enough to be worth your attention if you are a fan of the subgenre.

Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little

The Blurb

Who was she? Where was she going? And why?

All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.

As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.

The Verdict

Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.

Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.

The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.

Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.

Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.

One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.

I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.

The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.

You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.

In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.

Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.

I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.

This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Book Details

Originally published 2016

The Blurb

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life: married to a respected judge, mother of a beloved son, living in the beautiful house where she was raised. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. And when Lydia’s son, Laurence, discovers its secret, wheels are set in motion that lead to an increasingly claustrophobic and devastatingly dark climax.

The Verdict

A very solid example of a whydunnit with several interesting and sympathetic characters. Its greatest strength is in its conclusion which made for compelling reading.


My Thoughts

Lying in Wait was an impulse purchase based on nothing more than its first line, helpfully quoted at the start of the blurb. Clearly this would be an inverted crime story and, as we all know, those are my sort of thing…

The story concerns the death of a young woman at the hands of Andrew, a judge. The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the murder and so we witness how Andrew and his wife respond to the incident but it is some time before we learn exactly how and why it happened. Those initial chapters focus heavily on the cover-up and exploring the ways that murder alters the relationships within the Fitzsimmons and Doyle families. It is only once we delve deeper into characters’ histories that we get a clearer sense of how and why this crime took place.

Liz Nugent tells her story from the perspectives of three different characters involved in this tragic set of events. The first is Lydia, the woman who identifies her husband as the murderer in that first sentence and who witnessed that murder. The second is Karen, the sister of the dead girl. She provides us with the backstory of the victim’s earlier life but later in the novel she falls into an investigative sort of role, trying to find out what happened to Annie. Finally we have Laurence, Lydia’s only son who begins the story as a rather sullen teenager.

Nugent alternates between the various perspectives, often ending a chapter at one point in time, then jumping back a little way to show you the same events (or part of them) from a different perspective. I found this to be an effective technique as it clearly distinguishes what one set of characters know from another, allowing for some moments of dramatic irony as we are aware of information that is unknown to the narrating character and can predict future areas of conflict or problems that may arise for the characters.

The novel is also split into several time periods with the first part of the book set in 1980, the bulk in 1985 while the final few chapters take place in 2016. I think that this allows us to see how this murder has a powerful and lasting impact on the fates of everyone involved. This is most pronounced in the case of the victim’s family but Laurence is a particularly interesting figure as he only has a partial knowledge of what happened for a substantial part of the novel.

I was impressed with Nugent’s implementation of the multiple narrators technique. Each of the three characters have distinct and identifiable personalities and narrative voices. This is particularly clear in the judgments they make of each other and while Karen and Lydia only have limited interactions for much of the story, it is interesting to read how they respond to each other and the judgments they make when they do.

I also respect the depth of characterization that is present, not only in these three characters but also in the others that flesh out their different worlds. I had little difficulty imagining them, particularly the more colorful characters like Laurence’s first girlfriend, Helen and I enjoyed moments where we got to read a different character’s interpretation of that same person. Several of these characters seem to change over the course of the novel, often in response to the murder plot itself, which only makes the time jump more effective.

While I enjoyed each of the three narrative voices, I have a clear favorite: I think the character of Laurence is the most interesting, in part because we have an advantage on him in knowing what he does not. Over the course of the book we not only see Laurence struggle to get out from under the control of his domineering mother but also coming to the realization that his father may have been involved in Annie Doyle’s murder. His responses are interesting, often borne out of a desire to protect his family, and I could understand his decision making, even when some of those choices seemed certain to harm him.

Lydia however is arguably a more familiar and perhaps less nuanced character, although I think she does have an interesting personal history that gets pulled out in later chapters of the novel. Those chapters are well written and contain some of the novel’s most exciting moments, particularly in the last third of the novel, but they also hit some of the more familiar notes and themes, especially in relation to her feelings about her son. Still, those ideas are done well and feel appropriate to the overall development of the story.

In terms of the overall plot, I should probably emphasize that this is more of a crime story than a detective story. While several characters do conduct an investigation that is important to the novel’s plot and the reader can work out how it is likely to end, there are not really many opportunities to play armchair detective. This is much more interested in those character relationships and in figuring out how the central tensions between the three narrators will work out.

It is this aspect of Nugent’s novel that I find most worthy of attention. The story is structured brilliantly and the author brings the different strands together well in the end to deliver a powerful conclusion. I was not really shocked by any aspect of that ending – Nugent establishes the key points very clearly – but there is something quite electrifying in seeing how those ideas come together and witnessing the fallout at the end of the novel.

While there are a few surprising moments, I would suggest that what this novel does best is solidly executing its key dramatic beats to enable the story to change direction, often altering key power dynamics between the characters. I was keen to see how those tensions would resolve and while I felt pretty sure I knew how the book might end, I felt the execution of that ending was quite excellent.

Lying in Wait was my first experience of Liz Nugent’s work but I have to say that I was impressed and plan to investigate more of her stories – I would gladly take any recommendations if people have them. I found her writing style to be engaging and enjoyed the attention she gave to putting her characters in interesting situations and resolving those areas of conflict. It is, in my opinion, a very solid example of a whydunnit and while those answers come fairly early in the text, Nugent does a fine job of exploring the impact of those revelations throughout the rest of the novel.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie

Book Details

Originally published in 1981 as 占星術殺人事件
English translation first published in 2004

Kiyoshi Mitarai #1

The Blurb

Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve a macabre murder mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years—in just one week. With the help of his freelance illustrator friend, Kiyoshi sets out to answer the questions that have haunted the country ever since: Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, ‘the perfect woman’?

With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion—pieced together like a great stage tragedy—challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain falls.

The Verdict

The locked room elements of the plot are oversold and the least interesting part of an otherwise fascinating case.


My Thoughts

Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of those books frequently cited as a later classic in the locked room sub-genre. As the cover of the Pushkin Vertigo reprint points out, this was selected by The Guardian as one of the top ten locked room mysteries of all time which was certainly enough to get my attention and get me to take a closer look.

This book has been on my to be read pile for some time. In what I can only describe as a comedy of errors on my part, I succeeded in purchasing three copies of the book over the past four months. At the same time, I also had a copy on loan from the library AND I own an ebook copy. An expensive mistake, though I did make sure I read at least a few pages from each of the copies!

The novel opens with an excerpt from a fictional document written in 1936 that is a blend of will and confession. In it the painter Heikichi Umezawa describes how he has come to believe he is possessed and that he must murder all of his daughters (biological and adoptive) except Kazue Kanemoto who is excluded because she is not a virgin and remove body parts according to their zodiac signs to create a body to a perfect woman, Azoth, to be brought into this world. The remains of his daughters will be buried at sites across Japan, also in accordance with their zodiac signs. This, he believes, will enable Imperial Japan to find prosperity.

The novel then jumps forward to 1979 and introduces us to our narrator, mystery fan Kazumi Ishioka, and astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai. We learn that a series of murders like those described by Heikichi took place over forty years earlier and that they remain unsolved in spite of the existence of the document. The reason for this is that Heikichi was murdered in his locked studio before the murders of his children and so could not have committed the murders himself.

Kazumi is providing Kiyoshi with details concerning each of the murders which, we are told, can be sorted into three groups. The first is the murder of Heikichi in his studio which was locked and bolted from the inside. The second is the murder of Kazue whose head is smashed in an apparent robbery. Finally we have the disappearance of the six daughters, step-daughters and nieces after travelling to Mt. Yahiko to lay Heikichi’s spirit to rest. It takes some time to find the mutilated bodies but they are found buried near mines across Japan, each missing the body parts as described in the initial document. Azoth, the creation presumed to have been made using them, is never found.

If my description above sounds dense and confusing, it reflects that this is a very complicated plot with a number of different elements at play. A consequence of this is that the earliest chapters often feel very dense and dry as the two friends describe and walk through the events and some of the theories that people have proposed to explain them. Shimada throws a lot of information at the reader which means that progress in the first section of the book can be a little slow, particularly if you are seriously trying to solve the case yourself.

The story opens up however once we are presented with a second document and the reasons for the protagonists’ interest in the case become clearer. This information, and a subsequent challenge from the authorities, leads the pair to undertake a journey to try and solve a case that baffled Japan for over forty years in under a week.

If the previous section of the novel felt stagnant and slow, these chapters inject some energy and excitement into the process. There is a real sense of discovery as the pair travel across Japan to talk with witnesses and the questions we are posed and try to answer are reworked and refined.

Shimada chooses to style his novel as a fair play mystery, providing not just one but two challenges to the reader. I found this to be quite charming, particularly given that while they are clearly related they place emphasis on different aspects of the crime.

The explanation for what had happened and why feels quite wonderfully audacious and I felt it was explained clearly. Compared with those earlier, dense chapters, these feel easy to follow and boast some very clever ideas.

The one aspect of the solution that I felt underwhelmed by was, strangely enough, the locked room itself. The mechanics of how this were worked do little to appeal to the imagination while I also found it hard to imagine the details of the crime scene, particularly the descriptions of the bed. I only really able to imagine the evidence properly towards the end of the book once the significant details had been explained.

I felt that, on the whole, Shimada played fair with the readers. Now, I will say that I would be surprised if readers picked up on every aspect of the solution by themselves, in part because Shimada’s handling of his evidence is so clever and precise. I came closer than I expected to, noticing several important clues, but I struggled to weave them together effectively into a cohesive whole. For me the solution is truly memorable and I enjoyed following our sleuths as they reached it.

The sleuths were the least interesting aspect of the book for me although I appreciated their method and some of the testy exchanges they share, particularly over the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Kiyoshi’s disdain for Sherlock Holmes is quite entertaining, particularly as he reaches for negative descriptions of the character. While he is not alone in wondering if the great detective is as brilliant as he is usually supposed – some of the criticisms made will be familiar to fans of the stories – I enjoyed them in large part because Kiyoshi seems oblivious to his own similarities with the character. For instance, both are reluctant to have their story retold, both are prone to lethargy followed by sudden bursts of energy and action and so on.

Beyond Kiyoshi and the first victim, Kazumi, however do not expect particularly rich characterizations. Much of the story is told in conversation between the two friends and so there are relatively few opportunities for interaction with other figures in the story. Also, given the high body count there simply are not many characters from that earlier period still around to talk to, meaning that several interviews feel a little peripheral to the main case.

Overall, I feel that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is an interesting although sometimes challenging read. It has some inventive ideas but the early chapters contain so much information that they sometimes feel hard-going. For those who persevere through that heavy first section, the final destination is clever, original and explained very clearly with lots of diagrams making for a worthwhile read.


Second Opinion

For a second opinion from someone with much deeper knowledge of the impossible crime story check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event.