Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト
English translation first published in 2003

The Blurb

This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society. 

At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

The Verdict

A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.


My Thoughts

Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.

The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.

From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.

The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.

Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.

While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.

Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.

In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.

Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.

Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.

There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.

Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.

As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.

Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.

Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

A Kiss of Fire by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

Book Details

Originally published in 1984 as 火の接吻.
English translation published in 1988.

The Blurb

Years ago they saw a batlike creature running up the stairs of the house, breathing fire. Now, the three childhood friends, their minds feverish with the inferno they had witnessed, struggle to comprehend the series of arsons that engulf their world.

One of them is the fireman, accused of being the arsonist when his wallet and I.D. are found in the stomach of a circus lion that has died in a fire. One of them is the detective, who must figure out which of his two childhood friends is the culprit. One of them is the arsonist, pursuing his nocturnal obsession in a black sweat suit, a bag of gasoline slung around his neck, a lion among his victims.

Little do they know that a hidden hand manipulates their every action, drawing them closer and closer together and deeper and deeper into a puzzle that offers one perplexing question after another, culminating in a final stunning solution.

The Verdict

Though the premise of this story appears heavily reliant on coincidence, the ending is superb and satisfying.


My Thoughts

According to her biography on Goodreads, the author Masako Togawa wrote over thirty novels in her lifetime. Unfortunately the few English language sources I can find are not particularly forthcoming on the details of those books but I can say that just four have been translated into English and, of those, only two (The Master Key and The Lady Killer) are still in print. Early last year I wrote about Slow Fuse, the last of her books to be translated, and I commented on a short story when I reviewed Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen so with this post I will be up to date on all of her work.

Togawa’s crime fiction, at least those stories I have been able to read in translation, falls within the broad description of psychological thriller rather than detective story. Stories may incorporate multiple perspectives as characters struggle to understand unsettling situations and work out what the significance of what they have witnessed or experienced is. These stories are as much about characters’ explorations of their understanding as they are about physical clues or suspects.

Of her four translated novels, this is probably the one which most resembles a fair play mystery – we are given plenty of information about what has taken place and the reader can correctly deduce what happened by the end of the novel. That being said, the book’s primary focus is on exploring these characters and their relationships to one another and it has more in common with Ruth Rendell and the sort of psychosexual thrillers of the eighties than Golden Age-style detective fiction.

A Kiss of Fire begins with a newspaper account of the death of an artist in a house fire. There were three young children in the house at the time who were suspected of playing with matches but while the police were suspicious that they may be responsible they were unable to find evidence proving that conclusion. Shortly after the tragedy the three would lose contact with each other and at the start of the novel we encounter them as adults, each living quite different lives but still retaining a connection to arson.

Togawa alternates perspectives between these three characters, labeling their chapters based on the role that they play: Fireman, detective and arsonist. These labels, while seemingly helpful, conceal as much as they reveal and part of the puzzle is understanding exactly how they relate to each other and why they behave in the way that they do. At times we may wonder if the characters or the narrator are being entirely truthful with us (and themselves) or whether their identities are more complicated than the labels they are given.

What unites these characters, other than their being witnesses to the death of the artist, is their interest and involvement in the case of a serial arsonist. This figure seems to operate by a series of rules, setting fires only on specific days of the month and only using some materials. Several people have died in the fires however which has prompted a police investigation which one of the three is leading. Meanwhile the firefighter is prowling the city’s streets at night, hoping to catch the guilty party in the act or to persuade residents to move flammable objects out of the arsonist’s reach. And as for the arsonist – well, they are identified but we are not told why they are doing what they do. Understanding that motivation is a very important part of this book and I am happy to say that the explanation of that motive turns out to be both thoughtful and pleasingly complex.

Though these three characters start the story in ignorance of each other’ involvement in the situation, soon their paths will cross again and events from their past will be explored in more detail. These characters are rarely likeable and their decision making is frequently poor, yet by the end of this story I felt that I understood most of the decisions that they made and why they took them.

I found the earliest chapters of the novel to be its least successful. Part of the reason is that the coldness of the character who dominates these earliest chapters – the firefighter – struck me as quite offputting. I should say that I think it is credible that someone could be as thoughtless and driven as he is but the casual manner in which, a couple of pages into the book, he blames his girlfriend for being raped when she was a teenager is pretty breathtaking and made me instantly dislike him. I will say that this does establish several aspects of his personality pretty effectively and as the narrative becomes more complex, I became less conscious of my dislike for him and more engrossed in the plot.

The other reason that I think that these early chapters are a little hard-going is that there is a great deal of coincidence in the history of these characters and the way they cross paths again. While Togawa justifies some of that coincidence, it still feels that these earliest chapters ask the reader to accept a lot. I think that by the end of the novel most of those seemingly bizarre coindences and strange behaviors make a great deal of sense in the context of the story’s solution but some may find the sudden apparent changes in characters’ behavior or sensational developments off-putting.

Perhaps my favorite of the contrivances, though it still feels quite incredible when explained, concerns the appearance of the firefighter’s wallet and ID inside the stomach of a caged lion that dies in a house fire. This is a wonderfully colorful and frankly absurd idea that the story fully embraces and explores. Its importance to the story is in pulling these characters more closely into each others’ orbits and making us question the reliability of what we have learned.

It is once these characters do cross paths and start to become aware of one another that I think this story really takes off. Part of the reason for this is that the events of the past appear much richer and more complex than the crimes taking place in the present. We are essentially dealing with memories and perceptions, colored by these characters’ very young ages at the time of the first fire. Each character has their own ideas as to what happened based on what they perceived seeing and I found the process of piecing these together to be quite fascinating.

While creating a fair play mystery is not necessarily Togawa’s focus, I would argue that the reader is given all of the information they need to work out the solution. In my own case I successfully identified the guilty party and their motivations by about halfway through the book though there are still plenty of interesting developments to come in the story after that point. The account of what happened, and the novel’s epilogue in which we are updated about the fates of the various characters, are handled exceptionally well, delivering a tight and really satisfying conclusion that is perhaps my favorite of the four Togawa novels I have read.

I should say however that in spite of my feelings about that ending I would not suggest this as your first Togawa. Instead I would recommend The Master Key which I think is a more consistent and approachable read. This is a great choice to follow that however an superior to both The Lady Killer or Slow Fuse (particularly the latter). Copies are not outrageously expensive and there seem to be quite a few copies of this in public libraries, at least according to WorldCat, so the lack of a recent reprint shouldn’t be too problematic for those seeking out a copy.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Killed in Translation category as a Silver Age read.

Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

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 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.

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.

Slow Fuse by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Prentis

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, translated Alexander O. Smith

Book Details

Originally published as 容疑者Xの献身 (Japanese) in 2005.
English translation published in 2011.

Detective Galileo #3
Preceded by 予知夢 [Yochimu]
Followed by ガリレオの苦悩 [Garireo no Kunō]

The Blurb

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered.

When Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police tries to piece together the events of that day, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated. Nothing quite makes sense, and it will take a genius to understand the genius behind this particular crime…

The Verdict

A superb inverted mystery novel with an engaging premise and characters.


My Thoughts

Last week I did something I haven’t been able to do for a while: I read a book in a single sitting. After months of trying to slot in reading in fifteen or thirty minute increments, there was something wonderfully satisfying about being able to read at leisure and see an entire idea worked through without any interruptions or distractions.

I am particularly pleased that The Devotion of Suspect X was the title I was able to do this for given that this is a book that I would not have wanted to put down.

The novel opens by introducing us to Yasuko, a single mother who works in a restaurant. On this day her ex-husband, a lowlife who has continued to harass her for money since their divorce, turns up at the restaurant demanding to talk with her. When she tries to shrug him off, he suggests he will go and meet her daughter at school and talk to her instead – forcing her to reluctantly agree to let him visit her at home after work.

The discussion between them does not go well and after he threatens that he is not just there for money and plans on being around a lot, the situation escalates and after a brief struggle he is killed.

As Yasuko and her daughter panic they receive a visit from their neighbor Ishigami, a high school mathematics teacher. He heard the commotion and offers his help in hiding the crime – possibly because of his attraction to Yasuko.

While we are not privy to every aspect of his preparations, we are aware of the general idea that Ishigami intends to use his knowledge of logic and procedure to predict what the investigators will be looking for. After Yasuko places herself in Ishigami’s hands the perspective shifts to that of Kusanagi, a Tokyo detective, who is handed the case of a man body found in the street with battering to the face and damage to the fingers to prevent identification. With the help of a college friend, a physicist nicknamed “Detective Galileo”, Kusanagi sets out to find out what really happened.

Probably the best place to start is to go back to the beginning and talk about the killing. Here I think Higashino does an excellent job of letting you know the geography of a space and to convey the movements of each person involved. There is a chaos to the death which fits with it not having been planned, but I was never lost as to what was going on or why.

I think he is also pretty effective in explaining why Ishigami offers to get involved in a cover-up and why Yasuko will ultimately accept. The involvement of her daughter places her at risk and while the way Ishigami offers is risky, which he acknowledges, her hope is that they can avoid being caught up in the investigation at all.

From this point we transition into the investigatory phase of the novel. It is worth stating again that the reader enters this section of the novel with only a vague idea of what Ishigami has planned. Some parts of the plan seem to tie in with our expectations – the creation of a false alibi for instance – while others are much more surprising.

I would love to be able to discuss the construction of this novel in some detail as I think Higashino employs some really interesting ideas. Unfortunately I can’t do that without signposting the tricks that are used. In the most general terms though I can say that I am most impressed by the way the construction of the narrative echoes the key themes of the novel. The novel is layered extremely cleverly, building up to a really interesting and satisfying conclusion.

For all of Ishigami’s meticulous planning, the one thing he is unable to predict is that Yukawa (Detective Galileo) will become involved in the case. This personal connection between criminal and detective only heightens the cat and mouse game aspects of the plot. These two men know each other and are intimately acquainted with how each other think which allows each a certain insight into what the other is likely to do.

In his review (linked below), JJ describes how one of the reasons he was unsatisfied with the novel was how some key clues in the case are largely inaccessible to the reader because they are reflections of that relationship. He is not incorrect – one of Yukawa’s key observations that points him in the right direction is largely a matter of intuition. Reading back over the book I do think Higashino provides a couple of hints as to what that might be but they are very subtle – more useful to justify the observation after the fact than to help the reader actually make it.

While I acknowledge that this aspect of the story is not necessarily fair play, I feel that is actually the point Higashino is attempting to address in this novel. Were crime solving simply about the triumph of logical reasoning then Ishigawi would be victorious. His plan is excellent, extremely carefully set up and predicts nearly every line of investigation the police might have. He out-thinks the police and Yukawa so he really should succeed.

I would also add that while that aspect of the case may not entirely play fair with the reader, every other aspect of the ending does. I agree with TomCat, whose review is also linked below, that the final revelation – one which I think is chiefly responsible for the book’s enormous success – is clued fairly and clearly. It makes for a superb and powerful ending and I love the way it reflects back on so many of the novel’s strongest themes.

You may notice that for all I have written about the book I have barely touched on either Kusanagi or Yukawa. The latter directly features only in a few sequences when he is consulted while we never really get to know Kusanagi on a personal level. In other cases that might be disappointing but I think it reflects that our focus falls so much on the fascinating and perhaps rather ambiguous figure of Ishigawi.

One benefit of this is that while the book is part of a series it can be enjoyed as if it were a standalone title. This is particularly welcome as the English translations are not being done in order.

This was my second encounter with Higashino’s work and I am happy to say that I enjoyed this every bit as much as Malice. Both works are superb examples of the inverted mystery form and I would happily recommend either to you. On the back of these two experiences I have gone ahead and acquired his other translated works so expect to see further posts about his novels in the future.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event had a very different take on this novel than I did, commenting on the lack of detection within the story. I didn’t read it through that lens so it didn’t bother me but I could see that bothering readers – particularly if the book has been hyped as a masterpiece of logical deduction (I agree that it isn’t).

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time offers a much more positive review, acknowledging there are some weaknesses in Yukawa’s deductive reasoning (which is, as he says, based on some intuition) but notes that the brilliant final twist is fairly clued.

Fictionophile found the book to be ingeniously plotted and loved the multi-layered puzzle.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell

The Gun
Fuminori Nakamura
Originally published as 銃 in 2003
English translation published in 2015

The Gun is the story of a young man’s growing obsession with a gun he discovers next to a body under a bridge near the river while wandering late at night. Instinctively picking it up, he takes it home with him where he cleans it and examines it more closely, finding there are four bullets left in its chamber.

After he starts to carry it with him everywhere he begins to fantasize about firing the gun…

Though it is labelled a crime novel, I think it would be more accurate to describe The Gun as a piece of literary fiction, albeit one placed in the noir tradition. After all, for most of the novel’s page count there are no crimes beyond the possession of the gun itself and our focus is on exploring the protagonist’s precarious mental state.

The narrator, Nishikawa, is a university student who is something of a loner. While the novel begins with the discovery of the gun we get an impression of his life prior to that moment and it is clear that he was already exhibiting some warning signs.

He has one friend, Keisuke, but he has little affection for him, seeming disgusted by his lifestyle of heavy drinking and womanizing. While he also seduces women, he has little interest in them afterwards and certainly no interest in forming anything approaching a relationship. Not that he seems to find much pleasure in those pursuits either…

Possessing the gun does not change Nishikawa so much as it encourages some dormant personality traits to develop and emerge. In effect it serves as a catalyst, giving him the power and the confidence to become the person he would like to be and ignore his inhibitions. We see this manifest itself in several ways including his interactions with two women (it would be misleading to call them relationships or either woman a romantic interest). His behavior in both encounters becomes increasingly less responsive to the women’s preferences.

One of the most successful aspects of the novella is in the way it conveys the sense of obsession. The word gun appears frequently throughout the story, sometimes as often as every two or three lines and this is a really effective way of suggesting just how ever-present it is in Nishikawa’s thoughts. The writing conveys a fascination with the mechanism and with the sense of power it bestows and while I think there is a sense of inevitability about the story’s ultimate destination, I did find it interesting to witness some of the developments that push the story towards that conclusion.

The other aspect of the novella that I found to be particularly successful was the way it posed the question of whether the gun gives Nishikawa power or whether it is actually exerting it over him. At times the gun seems to almost possess a personality or an aura and seems to be willing him to act in particular ways and the reader may question whether this is simply a projection of his own desires or if it really does have a sort of hold over him. After all, he tells us quite clearly that he never had any interest in guns prior to finding this one and we have little reason to think he is manipulating us. Is it simply the allure of the forbidden or is there something almost supernatural about the gun?

As interesting as that idea can be, the problem for me was that the plot was not sufficiently complex. Indeed there is relatively little incident at all beyond his interactions with the two girls and a subplot involving a trip to the hospital to visit his father. The latter sequence provides an interesting viewpoint of his mindset and sense of priorities and self but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been expanded on to explore the origins of Nishikawa’s sociopathic tendencies.

Instead the author chooses to provide the reader with suggestive moments but no clear answers. Denying the reader answers or a sense of resolution can be an interesting choice as it can provoke and engage a reader but here it feels that it simply fell outside the scope of the writer’s interest.

This is a shame because I think at its best the author’s depiction of obsession can be really quite effective. The problem is that as the novella strikes one note repeatedly, it ends up feeling a little repetitive by the point we reach the end and it fails to develop any great moments of surprise or the sense that the reader is engaging in an act of discovery.

So, overall this didn’t quite work for me but while I was a little underwhelmed by some aspects of this particular title I did enjoy the writing style enough that I am keen to try more of his work.

Hopefully the next title I pick will be more to my taste.

Further Reading

Normally I link to other blog reviews but I found this discussion between the author and his French translator and discussion of the film adaptation so interesting that I had to link to it. I will say that while I had some reservations about the novella, I am intrigued by the stills from the movie adaptation and would be curious to see it for myself.

Malice by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Malice
Keigo Higashino
Originally Published 1996
Detective Kaga #4
Preceded by どちらかが彼女を殺した
Followed by 私が彼を殺した
(Neither title has been released yet in English)

In any mystery novel that seeks to actively engage the reader there is a question that they have to solve. The most common of these is the question of who carried out the crime but there are, of course, other questions a writer may focus on instead.

Impossible crime novels, for instance, shift the focus from who onto the question of how a crime was committed. And then there are inverted mystery novels.

As I noted in my recent Five to Try post, the most common structure for these sorts of stories is the howcatchem. In those stories the reader knows the killer’s identity but has to work out how their seemingly perfect plan will be picked apart by the detective. There is also another form that is used far less frequently – the whydunnit – in which readers learn the killer’s identity but must try to learn the reasons for an apparently senseless or counterproductive crime. Malice is an example of this latter, somewhat unusual style of mystery.

I suspect that the reason that I have not encountered many whydunnits is simply that it is a hard form to sustain for a whole novel. If you are inside the killer’s head then it is near-impossible for the writer to find a way to naturally withhold that information from the reader. Also, let’s face it, motivations for crimes are often rather repetitive. When this type of crime novel is done well however it can be an electrifying experience.

Malice is a whydunnit done well.

The novel is almost entirely told from two perspectives. One is the children’s novelist Osamu Nonoguchi and the other is Kyoichiro Kaga, the police detective investigating the murder that takes place.

Initially it seems that Osamu has been chosen as a narrator because he discovered the body of his friend, the popular novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. The first chapter certainly gives the impression that we will be in familiar whodunnit territory as it describes the events of the evening of Hidaka’s death.

The crime takes place in a locked study within a locked house to which only two people (the victim and his wife) possess keys. I suppose that could qualify the novel as being a locked room puzzle but I do not want to oversell that aspect of the book. It really isn’t anything like the focus of the book and that aspect of the solution is probably its least interesting or creative part.

Instead we soon learn information that will make the killer’s identity clear to the reader (assuming they haven’t read the book’s blurb which also gives it away). We even discover how they carried out their plan, in effect removing the questions of who and how from the reader’s consideration. The biggest question that remains for both the detective and the reader is why they have decided to do this, particularly on the eve of the victim’s relocation from Japan to Canada.

This question might initially appear to be quite simple but I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. Part of the reason for this is that the killer refuses to assist the investigation in learning about their motives yet they are willing to confess to the crime itself. This builds on to the sense of mystery the author has cultivated up to that point as we wonder what they may be trying to hide and also what their goal is in not fighting the charge itself.

The other reason that I think the questions of motivation are interesting is that it affects whether we are looking at an instance of murder or manslaughter. These two crimes obviously carry significantly different penalties but they may also affect the way we look at the crime and the killer.

In most respects I think the plot works pretty well as a puzzle though I will throw in the typical caveat that I am not sure that the reader can work out the entire solution for themselves. Rather it is a plot where everything makes sense once it is explained and I did find some aspects of the solution to be both surprising and satisfying.

While I had little difficulty following the puzzle, Detective Kaga made less of an impression on me than I had hoped. I do wonder to what extent that reflects that this was a later story in the series, even though this was the first to be translated into English. Certainly I think we get little sense of who he is away from his job which is a shame, though I did respond to his cautious, methodical approach to solving the murder and thought he showed some ingenuity at times (there is a part of the explanation for how it was worked that is really very clever).

It is in terms of its thematic discussion that I think the book really stands out. What Higashino does particularly well is explore questions of what it means to be creative and the nature of the publishing industry while telling an interesting, character-driven mystery.

His characters are interesting, credible and fully formed, particularly the two writers. I can only echo John Grant’s opinion (linked to below and stated far more eloquently than I could manage) that Higashino is particularly effective when exploring their personalities and temperaments.

Overall, I found this to be a quick but really engaging read. I would certainly be willing to revisit the author and his lead detective again in the future.

Further Reading

John Grant posted his thoughts on this book on Goodreads which he says he enjoyed even more than The Devotion of Suspect X. He particularly responded to the elements of the story that draw on writer’s preoccupations and passions which was one of the aspects I enjoyed most too.

Ella Jauffret offers up a recipe for udon noodles inspired by the book and for a coffee jelly as part of her FictionFood series.