Originally published in 1988 as 雲から贈る死
English translation first published in 1991
“I will send them all death from on top of the clouds.”
In a dream, Toko hears her Uncle Okito utter this deadly threat. Now the dream appears to be coming true. The first is Uncle Ryuta, president of the family electronics corporation – dead in an inexplicable plane crash. Next is Yaeko, Uncle Ryuta’s mistress – poisoned. Who is next? Uncle Koji, in line for company president? Or Toko’s own beloved father?
The police suspect the author of these brilliant crimes to be Uncle Okito, the genius brother who had made the family fortunes. But Okito is dead, an apparent suicide more than a month before.
Toko has her own idea of where the key to the mystery lies – and sets about finding it. Meanwhile, the chain of tragedy continues its inexorable, perhaps endless course…
To the best of my knowledge there were six English language translations of mysteries by ‘Japan’s Bestselling Mystery Writer’ Shizuko Natsuki published in the late 80s and early 90s. A few months ago I happened upon a set of them and snapped them up, curious to see how they would compare with Murder at Mt. Fuji – my first encounter with her work. A couple of months ago I shared my thoughts on The Third Lady, a trading murders story which caught my attention with its obvious parallels to Strangers on a Train.
Of the novels that remained the one that appealed most to me was Death From The Clouds. I think what intrigued me was its structure in which a group of executives from one of the world’s leading electronics corporations are killed one by one. Where the blurb for The Third Lady put me in mind of Highsmith, this made me think of Christie. Not so much the apparently random killings of The ABC Murders but the more purposeful, structured approach of And Then There Were None in which there is clearly meant to be an order and a purpose, even if it seems impossible to imagine at the start of the novel.
The novel begins a few months after the death of Okito, a brilliant engineer who had revolutionized the microcomputer over a decade earlier, kickstarting the growth of the Ruco corporation in the early seventies to make it one of the leaders in its industry, with several family members becoming senior executives. The precise circumstances of Okito’s death are a little shadowy – his older brother Ryuta describes them as ‘miserable’ – and the family is only just emerging from a period of mourning.
Ryuta is keen to get back to his hobby of piloting his private plane and decides to take a flight. He calls his niece Toko who tries to dissuade him from flying, sharing that she had a dream in which she imagined Okito on top of stormy clouds. Ryuta decides to fly anyway but the plane’s engines stutter and fail, causing a fatal crash. It’s a tragic death but it turns out to be the first of several with other members of the family, all connected with the company, each dying in turn.
There are several aspects of this setup that appealed to me. The first was the element of premonition. Toko’s vision of her dead uncle vowing vengeance on his family is a striking one, particularly as described. It certainly helps to create a sense of dread and an atmosphere that hangs over those early chapters as we wonder just what he may have intended and also why Toko dreamed of him at all. Is that vision her imagination at work or is it based on something she subconsciously observed? It’s a great question that unfortunately falls out of focus in the later chapters of the book but which initially helped to hook me into the story.
Another is the way Natsuki slowly releases information to the reader, hinting to us about resentments and characters’ relationships long before we know the details of them. We know, for instance, that there was some resentment between Okito and his family but it takes some chapters before we know exactly what that was. I enjoyed learning about these characters’ histories and that of the company they built and I appreciated that our field of potential killers is kept quite wide until close to the end.
The most obvious killer would be Okito himself. He not only had by far the strongest motive to kill, he was also one of the few people with the requisite skills and knowledge to carry out those plans. The problem with that theory however is that he also has the strongest alibi. He is dead.
The other thing I really appreciate about the setup here is that there is some ambiguity about whether deaths are natural accidents or the result of foul play. The first few murders are able to be committed without anyone knowing that a serial killer is at work meaning that the reader is never forced to accept characters behaving in an unrealistic way, staying in a situation where they are obviously in danger. This, of course, ends up helping with the subsequent murders as no one is ever really on their guard until it is too late to do anything about it.
Where I think the problems with this book lie is in understanding the relationships between what is a pretty large cast of characters. This is one of those novels that I think could have really done with a family tree and chart showing their roles within the corporation as I found myself losing track of how those characters were connected to one another. Similarly a few of the characters feel barely sketched, making several of the victims feel more like names on a death roll than fully-dimensional, memorable characters.
That extends a little to the police as well when they are introduced later in the novel. These characters do not make much of an impression here with the author relying on the reader remembering them from Murder at Mt. Fuji. If it wasn’t for some direct references to their involvement in that case I don’t think I would have noticed that they were recurring and although it is just over a year since I read that novel, I have to say I have no memory of them at all (perhaps not a surprise as I characterized that investigation as ‘rushed and anticlimactic’ in my post). They gave me little reason to remember them from this one either.
Fortunately I think that the events of this novel are more interesting than that one, helping to make up for some deficiencies in the characterization and the investigation. For example, several of the deaths occur in quite striking ways. This includes an example of a poison used that I don’t think I can recall seeing used in a mystery novel before (even if it is curiously translated with a name that isn’t its standard English language spelling). I also really appreciated the thoughtful use of misdirection at a few points which I think make the case a little more complex and interesting.
In spite of that however, when it comes time for the actual solution to be revealed I found it a little underwhelming. As is often the case with talking about a novel’s ending, it’s tricky to lay out precisely why it didn’t entirely satisfy without getting into the realm of spoilers either directly or by implication. I think my frustrations lay in the idea that while each aspect of the solution is explained, I felt disappointed by the way that some elements are not as tightly incorporated into that solution as I had hoped.
Still, in spite of that I have to say I enjoyed my experience with this novel overall and would say it was the most intriguing of the three Natsuki novels I’ve read to this point. It’s a little uneven at points, sure, but there are some interesting ideas here, even if they don’t come together quite as neatly as I would have liked.
The Verdict: This novel offers some striking and unusual murder methods and I enjoyed the corporate politics elements of the story, even if it didn’t entirely come together for me with its solution.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1991 Ballantine Books edition.