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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo, translated by James B. Harris

JapaneseTales
Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination
Edogawa Rampo
Originally Published 1956

Edogawa Rampo, a pseudonym for Tarō Hirai, was one of the giants of Japanese crime fiction in the early-to-mid twentieth century. His name is a phonetic rendering of the name Edgar Allan Poe paying tribute to an author he admired and while his work is certainly original, you only have to dip into these stories to see that they shared a flair for the macabre.

This collection, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, contains a selection of his short stories some of which can be considered mysteries, others feeling more like grotesque adventures. All of the stories show imagination and a flair for unsettling characterizations and imagery.

While The Human Chair is probably Rampo’s best known short story, it is not really much of a mystery. If you are approaching these looking for a good puzzle or story with a twist resolution I would direct you to The Cliff, The Psychological Test and The TwinsThe Red Chamber is also a very entertaining read, describing some very imaginative murders, but I think the resolution goes a twist too far, blunts its impact a little.

A few stories didn’t work for me such as The Caterpillar which feels heavy-handed, even if it does hit some memorable notes in its conclusion. Also The Hell of Mirrors suffers from having an ending that cannot live up to the imagination shown in the creation of its premise. Even these stories though have moments that interest in spite of their flaws.

As a whole I was very impressed with the collection and found it to be an enjoyable and absorbing read. There is a good variety of story types and styles here and I imagine that several of these tales will stay with me for a while. Quite a bit of the author’s work seems to have been translated into English in recent years so I will look forward to seeking more out in the future.

The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

LadyKiller
The Lady Killer
Masako Togawa
Originally Published 1963

The Lady Killer has been at the very top of my list of books I have wanted to read ever since I read The Master Key, Masako Togawa’s first novel shortly after starting this blog last year. That book was the second novel I gave my Book of the Month award to and remains one of the novels that has stuck with me most since I started Mysteries Ahoy! I found it to be an unsettling read and loved the way Togawa built her characters and themes.

The Lady Killer was the author’s second novel and has previously appeared in English translation. While its subject matter is quite different from that earlier novel, it addresses some similar themes and social issues albeit from a different perspective.

Let’s start though with the title of the piece which can be taken in different ways to refer to different characters. The Lady Killer might be the main character who is a lothario who, when away from his wife, goes out to bars and clubs in search of women to seduce. He keeps records of his ‘kills’ in a diary in which he describes how he seduced the women, evaluates their performance and his own satisfaction with his experiences.

At the start of the novel we see how he seduces a young woman who works as a typist and suffers from depression. The pair spend one evening together and he leaves, never to realize that she becomes pregnant as a result. She does not seek him out and, for a time, that experience seems to give her the strength to go on but eventually she comes to feel hopeless again and commits suicide. When her older sister is told by the police about the pregnancy, she is determined to find out his identity and bring him to justice.

The first part of the novel follows his experiences as he seduces women and slowly begins to notice that some of his previous conquests are turning up dead. There are even some aspects of the crime scene that seem to be arranged to implicate him, leading him to wonder if he may have committed the crimes himself. This means we might interpret the title as referring to someone who kills ladies.

Finally, we are aware through some perspective shifts that a woman is seeking to arrange his downfall, meaning we can interpret it as a killer who is a lady.

I appreciate the ambiguity of the title because it also reflects that an ambiguity in where our sympathies should lie. The male protagonist of the book is clearly not in any way admirable. He values women not for their attributes as people but on a purely physical, mechanical basis and gives no thought at all to the aftermath of his actions. His seductions are not always harmful but they are selfish and predicated on elements of deceit. Yet by the midpoint of the novel we are challenged by our knowledge that he is being unfairly accused of crimes he did not commit.

The second half of the novel sees the introduction of a new pair of characters who are lawyers attempting to prove his innocence at appeal. This section of the novel is paced and told like a procedural with a focus on interviews, collating evidence and using it to try to understand what has happened.

Much like The Master Key, there is no great puzzle for the reader to solve or much mystery about what has taken place. We are let into the mind of the killer too often to be uncertain what their plan is and so the reader should be far ahead of the two lawyers by this point. While there is a very good twist near the end, the reader’s main consideration will be how can they undermine the case against their client with so little evidence in their favor.

I liked the novel a lot and found its characterization and discussion of themes of social isolation and of male and female sexuality to be thoughtful and considered but I do think it is a slightly less polished work than The Master Key. For instance, there are several attempts to get inside the head of a critical character towards the end of the novel that feel somewhat clumsy and juvenile in tone.

That said there are some really interesting moments and ideas in the story that I found to make for a rewarding read and I was impressed by the author’s ability to find the ambiguity in situations and characterizations. I was happy that the novel met my expectations and I hope that Pushkin Press go on to reissue some of her other works in translation.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Lady Killer is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States in October 2018.

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Seicho
A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto
Originally Published 1975

A Quiet Place is one of those novels that presents a particular challenge to review without mentioning at least a few spoilers. This is because there is an event that takes place a significant way into the novel which transforms the narrative.

This novel is the first I have read by Matsumoto, an author who was one of the most successful and important figures in Japanese crime fiction. This is a work from later in his career and while I have seen it described as a thriller, that would be a slightly misleading way to characterize a book that contains very little action and little in the way of suspense. It certainly doesn’t read that way. Instead I would suggest it is better regarded as a character study with mysterious elements and some of the form of a detective story.

The novel concerns Tsuneo Asai, a middle-ranking but respected official in the Ministry of Agriculture. He works hard to ingratiate himself with his superiors, knowing that they will likely be with him a short time but hoping that his efforts may lead to some future promotion. He is on a trip with them attending a dinner when he receives a telephone call from his wife’s sister. She informs him that his wife who was only thirty years old died some five hours earlier of a heart attack. He cuts his trip short, returning home to make the funeral arrangements.

As he learns more about the circumstances of his wife’s death he becomes increasingly confused. Not by the cause of death, as he knew she suffered from a serious heart condition, but rather from the location in which it occurred. She died in a boutique shop in a neighborhood he would hardly expect her to visit. He decides to pay a visit to the shopkeeper to offer a payment for the inconvenience his wife’s death caused her business but is confused by the shopkeeper’s demeanor and some of her responses, leading him to have even more questions about her death.

What follows adheres to many of the beats of the detective novel with the husband working to piece together what happened. He interviews some witnesses, tries to get a sense of the location and comes up with a theory. There is little surprising in the content of those investigations, rather the interest comes from the way that this investigation will affect Asai. I should also say at this point that I appreciated that the author has this story take place slowly over a number of months, emphasizing Asai is not a professional investigator and is having to work around the restrictions of his work calendar.

This sort of internalized, psychological story can be only as interesting as its protagonist and here I feel that Matsumoto meets with mixed success. Asai shows some intriguing and credible contradictions within his personality and I can see that there seems to be some satirical notes struck in his characterization yet the character’s reserved and calculating personality means he rarely dominates the narrative, especially in those early chapters.

While he has suffered a loss, the reader is unlikely to feel much sympathy for him given the way in which he responds. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of getting the news his first thought is how to convey the information to his colleagues and ensure his superior continues to receive good hospitality on their trip. As the narrative develops however I think depth is added to that characterization, building up to that moment I referenced where the novel takes on a different tone and style.

I do not want to give the impression that this is an abrupt or unexpected change – I would argue that it is actually rather a natural and organic development from the seeds laid in those early chapters. For me this shift worked nicely because it built upon what had come before and I think what follows is very well plotted and ultimately very satisfying. On the other hand, I could easily see it frustrating readers who come to this hoping for a more traditional whodunit or thriller structure due to its unorthodox structure and sense of pacing.

This puts me in a somewhat difficult position when it comes to recommending it as while I think it is ultimately a very successful novel that contains some wonderful character and thematic moments, it is perhaps less compelling as an example of the mystery genre. After all, for much of its duration the book is really not that mysterious and certainly the explanation for the wife’s death is likely to disappoint most readers expecting a more traditional detective story structure. Indeed, for much of the novel it is not even clear if a crime has taken place.

For those prepared to endure an extremely leisurely pacing for much of the novel, I do think there are some strong rewards both in the way Matsumoto builds to a striking ending and also the fascinating depictions of Japanese social interaction. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you will find it to be an interesting, characterful read.

The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi, translated by Sadako Mizuguchi

TheInformer
The Informer
Akimitsu Takagi
Originally Published 1971

Shigeo Segawa had been a successful stock trader for several years before disgracing himself when he was caught trading with company money. After trying to strike out on business on his own and failing we find him at the novel’s start working for his family business making a tenth of his former salary.

By chance he runs into an old acquaintance who tells him about a job opportunity that she had heard about. She sets up an appointment with what seems to be a fledgling company selling massage machines to executives. His meeting goes well and he receives a job offer with far more lucrative terms than he would expect and accepts, albeit with some reservations. Soon he learns that his position will not just be selling those machines but that he has been hired to carry out an act of industrial espionage.

This is my first experience reading anything by Akimitsu Takagi, a fairly prolific Japanese author of the post-war period and I came to it with relatively little knowledge of the type of story I would be reading.

The tone and storytelling in the opening chapters seems to indicate that we will be experiencing an inverted or psychological crime story as the reader anticipates everything going wrong. One review I read compared the themes and style of the first third of the novel to Mamet’s work which is an observation I wish I could claim was my own. At the point that everything goes wrong our point of perspective shifts to that of Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, one of Takagi’s series characters, who is tasked with investigating a murder and we realize that while what we have read will help us identify the killer, it is probably not going to be Shigeo.

Rather than trying to categorize the story by its storytelling style, I think this is better addressed in terms of its thematic discussion. The Informer is a story that addresses the changing nature of Japanese business and the values associated with that in the post-war period. In this sense it reminds me a lot of some of Kurosawa’s more cynical, modern dramas that would portray figures you would expect to be respectable as verging on degeneracy such as his Drunken Angel.

This is reflected in the cast of characters Takagi creates who might be described as varying dark shades of gray. There are numerous instances of what would have been regarded as sexual immorality and adultery, financial malpractice as well as manipulation and coercion. There are several instances in the novel where characters voice a lack of respect for the older generation which implies a broader cultural degeneracy infiltrating the workplace. Even the victim is hard to sympathize with if we can believe some of the information his wife’s sister shares with Shigeo.

The novel also evokes a strong sense of place and time, giving Takagi’s view of the business world of this time. Industrial espionage is rife with companies seeking any advantage they can find in a difficult economy. There are still hints of an older, highly paternalistic culture however that comes through in the way an employer seeks to protect the interests of one of his employees suggesting that this is Japan in transition. If you enjoy social history or reading about other cultures then you may well find these aspects of the book to be quite compelling.

Turning back to the mystery plot itself, I spent a good portion of the book absolutely certain of who must be responsible only to feel quite ridiculous when the final reveal comes. This reflects that the plot makes a certain amount of sense, though be prepared for the discussion of what happened to feel a little abrupt. Also, the fate of a key character is left unresolved so be prepared if you must have total closure! This may not be for you.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this work though is the writer’s ability to evoke psychology and put the reader in the head of his key characters as they process the situations they find themselves in and react. While this is a third person narrative, we get to share in Shigeo’s understanding of what is happening to him and follow his emotional reactions and reasoning as he makes his decisions. We are never left wondering why he responds the way he does, even when it causes more trouble for him, and I was anxious to know whether Saburo would catch the killer and how it would all be resolved for Shigeo.

The result is a novel that I felt made for fascinating reading although it is more of a suspense novel than a detective story. The setting is striking and the book conveyed a strong sense of time, place and culture. The circumstances of the crime are intriguing though I will say that the question of mechanics is not considered at all by either detective or writer. It made for a striking first impression of Akimitsu Takagi’s work, though I am disappointed to discover that only two of his other books were ever translated into English so unless someone goes ahead and starts commissioning some more I’ll never be able to read them myself.