The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.

The Blurb

Japanese National Railways runs a special Mystery Train that leaves Tokyo on a Saturday night, scheduled to return the following Monday morning. It has no announced schedule or destination, just the promise of an entertaining trip for the passengers.

This time, the passengers end up getting more “entertainment” than they bargained for. A phone call to railway officials demanding one billion yen in exchange for the safe return of the train and its passengers is thought to be a hoax – until the train fails to arrive at one of its scheduled stops.

Now railway officials really have a mystery train on their hands. How can a twelve-car train just vanish? Where can more than four hundred hostages be kept without being seen?

Clues are scarce and time is short. Nishimura uses masterful plotting and gripping suspense to create an investigation where the police are seemingly always one step behind the kidnappers – until some unexpected twists at the end.

The Verdict

Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.

We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.

My Thoughts

Earlier this year when I reviewed the short story anthology Old Crimes, New Scenes, I remarked on how I wanted to read more Nishimura in translation. Well, in doing my research for that post I learned that one of his many, many novels (there are over 400 apparently) was translated into English in 1990 and after doing a little scouting around I was able to track down a reasonably-priced copy.

The novel is The Mystery Train Disappears – a title that seemed to be suggestive of an impossible crime plot. As such, I was tempted to read and review it for my impossible crime series but having been burned on impossibilities several times lately I decided to go for a sure thing instead and to read this with no expectations. For the record it offers two impossible crimes. First, let’s outline the general scenario:

Japanese National Railways, keen to find ways to reduce its operational deficit, has decided to run a series of special journeys with the exciting hook that the passengers will be traveling to a mystery destination. The promotion seems to be a hit with the railway receiving a huge number of applications for the four hundred seats. A magazine decides that it is a good enough story to send a reporter to write about the trip and a reporter is dispatched, promising his fiancée that he will call her when they reach their first stop. When he fails to do so she is concerned and approaches the railway to ask for details of the trip.

The railway officials feel sure that everything is okay, particularly when they call the museum that the travelers were meant to visit who confirm that the travelers had shown up as expected but when they call the next station they are told that the train never arrived. While there is some speculation that the train may have broken down they learn that other trains have travelled on each of the tracks between the two cities, suggesting that the eight hundred foot train has just vanished off the tracks. As concern seems to grow the train company receives a phone call demanding a ransom payment for the safe return of the train and its passengers.

The disappearance of the train is our first impossible scenario. While I think some explanations will come to mind, the scale of the crime and the challenge of abducting a train when no one knows its eventual destination adds layers of complexity to the situation. I might suggest however that while this is an impossibility, the way it is explored does not really focus on the question of how it was done as the process of following leads to discover where the train and its passengers are now.

Ho-Ling Wong in his excellent post about this book (linked below) notes that a Japanese mystery fan wiki suggests that the solution to how this was done is actually impossible. Even without that knowledge, I think there is something rather underwhelming in how it is described even though I appreciated a few elements of it. I think I might have appreciated it even more though had the publisher provided a map of the line and a timetable to pour over – not that they would necessarily have helped me but it would have made me feel like there was a greater chance of my working out the relationships between the various clues and snippets of information that we are given.

The second impossibility, while shorter and less flashy, struck me as a more compelling one for impossible crime fans to work through. It concerns the ransom money which manages to vanish from the moving train while traveling between stations. The passengers’ luggage is thoroughly searched while the windows are sealed and the baggage train was completely inaccessible, adding to the mystery.

There are times that I feel rather stupid for failing to solve an impossible crime but this is not really one of those. I certainly think that the solution is pretty clever but I never really had a strong enough sense of the space to have been able to imagine what happened. Perhaps that reflects more on me and my lack of regular train travel than the mystery itself as the moment the explanation was given I could see exactly how that would work.

While the novel offers up two impossibilities, the style of the storytelling is all procedural and not unlike taking a mystery train journey. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation is on a set of tracks, offering a clearly defined path with few surprises or diversions. It is also clear that the reader has little chance of drawing any firm conclusions from what they have learned until close to the end. Even when we near that resolution, solving this has less to do with applications of logic or thinking through a problem as it does simply piecing the bits of information we have together and even that feels rather minimal.

The bigger issue is that the investigators themselves feel quite bland and I certainly had little sense of who they were beyond their function in the story. That perhaps reflects that one of the characters had appeared in a number of previous Nishimura stories but it means that there is no sense of personalities within the department – something that can often liven up those moments in a procedural in which the investigators seem to be getting nowhere (which in this book is quite a frequent feeling).

The characters from the railway company perhaps feel a little more defined though here I have an issue with empathizing with those characters. While they are doing the right thing by paying out the ransom, it is hard to sympathize with a company’s prime concern being avoiding a public relations scandal, even if that is quite a realistic view of how many executives would view the situation.

Perhaps the biggest cause of dissatisfaction for me lies in the ending’s novel. Now, I have no intention of spoiling exactly what that resolution is but I think it is worth stressing that there is a decisive part of the ending that happens in spite of the investigation rather than because of it. While such moments are pretty common early in an investigation, it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory to have a key development happen regardless of your protagonists’ involvement and while probably realistic, it struck me as quite anticlimactic.

Overall then my first novel-length Nishimura struck me as rather disappointing. There are some fun ideas here and it offers some appeal points for those who like gentle thrillers and stories involving trains but I found it rather underwhelming in terms of its puzzle plot. That being said, assuming that this isn’t the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist, I still hope that some day I will get to read more of his work in translation. He was so prolific it would be nice to get to know him better.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests lowering your expectations for this one but considers it an ‘interesting curio’.

Ho-Ling Wong shares his thoughts on this book, regarding it as rather underwhelming (and querying why this was the title out of his vast, vast catalog of work to be translated into English).

Case Closed, Volume 2: The Woman of Mystery by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Book Details

Originally published in 1994
English translation published in 2004
Volume 2
Preceded by The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times
Followed by One and the Same?

The Blurb

Conan must contend with the murder of a man who burns to death while the prime suspect has the perfect alibi; he helps a seemingly sweet and innocent girl look for her missing father; and he still has time to explore a haunted house with some of his new friends from elementary school!

All the clues are there–can you piece them together and solve these baffling cases before Conan does?

The Verdict

This second volume of Detective Conan stories is as entertaining as the first, though the cases feel a little simpler.

“Hah! Nobody will believe you… What’s the word of a child?”

My Thoughts

A few weeks ago I reviewed the first installment of the long-running Manga series Case Closed. I had not planned on posting about the second volume so soon but I found myself with less time to read than I would like this past week and rather than rushing some posts out I decided I would go ahead and release one of these a little earlier than planned (sorry, no impossibilities this Monday – I hope to make it up later this week!).

The premise of the series is that teenaged Jimmy Kudo, a brilliant amateur detective who has styled himself on Sherlock Holmes, stumbled onto the activities of a group of mysterious villains who force-fed him a drug that they thought would kill him. Instead it de-aged him by ten years meaning he now has the body of an elementary school student. Until he can identify the villains and find the formula they used on him, he cannot tell anyone his secret. Instead he has adopted the identify of Conan Edogawa and is staying with a private detective, secretly assisting him with his cases whenever possible.

Case Closed volume two contains three standalone cases, though I would agree with TomCat (who inspired me to try the stories) that the series ought to be read in order to follow the overarching story of Jimmy’s transformation. While there are not many developments in these three stories, there is one moment that seems to play into that plot line. With that in mind, let’s start talking about the specific action in this volume.

The first case file begins with Conan being introduced to his new classmates. While this is not directly related to the action in this particular case, it reminds us of the overall premise and reintroduces us to the problem that he always has to overcome – how to exert his influence as a detective when he looks like, and has the body strength of, a young child. Perhaps more importantly it introduces us to some supporting characters who will feature in this volume’s final case, establishing their relationships a while before we get to that action.

The case proper begins with Rachel’s father, Richard Moore, being hired to follow a man around for several days. Shortly after he finishes his assignment however the man’s body is discovered in a fire tower during a village’s fire festival. While this story is not exactly inverted, I think it is safe to suggest that there is an obvious suspect with a strong motive and that this is an example of an unbreakable alibi problem.

I do not think that this is a particularly challenging case to solve – you can imagine many of the developments that will occur by working through the scenario logically – but it is entertaining nonetheless and moves quickly enough that its relative simplicity isn’t a problem.

It also does a couple of things that I really like. For one, there is a visual representation of the unbreakable alibi timeline that works very well, condensing what in a novel would be several paragraphs or bullet points into a single small graphic. For another, I really enjoy the problems Conan encounters trying to steer this investigation and his interactions with the killer, even if I am less enamored of the way this case is resolved. All in all, this is not mind-blowing but a good, solid start to this second volume.

The second story is much meatier involving a high school girl visiting Richard to ask his help in finding her father who moved to Tokyo to find work but then disappeared. Conan thinks to himself that disappearances aren’t much in his line but before long he will find himself also investigating a murder.

This story initially struck me as quite predictable but it picked up for me as it progressed. It is not so much that the facts of the case become more complex but rather the situation surrounding it becomes increasingly intriguing. I also really like that this case sees Rachel take a more prominent role, becoming emotionally involved in the case and showing her toughness in a memorable sequence in which she chases a suspect down. While I have liked the character since she was first introduced, it is nice to see her in a role other than simply being oblivious to Conan being a de-aged Jimmy.

The final story is a bit of a change of pace as Conan is begged by several of his grade school classmates to join them as they investigate a house that is supposedly haunted. Several years earlier a man had been murdered there though the police were unable to discover the killer’s identity. Soon after they arrive however the group begin to disappear one-by-one…

I am in two minds about how I feel on this one. On the one hand it is nice to see the book properly lean into the premise of him having become a young child, involving him in a case that would certainly interest someone of that age. I enjoyed the mix of personalities among his classmates and it is interesting to see him interact with characters who are supposed to be his peers but that he feels quite separate from. That presents him in a slightly different light which I feel is welcome. I also quite like the idea of him effectively taking of a cold case, albeit quite unwittingly.

On the other, I don’t feel that the case is particularly satisfying. While I can understand the motives being explored here, I think the characters and the explanation feel rather flat and they are not properly introduced prior to the case being explained reducing the impact of that moment a little. Still, I appreciate this for trying to do something a little different and I really like the ending of the piece which sets up a fun idea that I hope would be picked up soon.

Overall I found this to be another quick and entertaining read. The cases here are perhaps a little less striking than those found in the first, but the stories all move pretty quickly and I enjoyed seeing how Jimmy would find ways to assert himself in his much younger Conan persona. I certainly plan on continuing to read this series though ideally these posts will be a little more spaced out in the future!

Case Closed, Volume 1: The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Book Details

Originally released in 1994
English translation released in 2004
Volume 1
Followed by The Woman of Mystery

The Blurb

Ghastly beheadings, bloody murders, and coldhearted child abductions–

Precocious high school student Jimmy Kudo uses his keen powers of observation and astute intuition to solve mysteries that have left law enforcement officials baffled. Hot on the trail of a suspect, Jimmy is accosted from behind and fed a strange chemical which physically transforms him into a grade schooler! Taking on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa, he attempts to track down the people who did this to him. But until he finds a cure for his bizarre condition, Jimmy continues to help the police solve their toughest cases.

Can you crack the case before Conan does?

The Verdict

An entertaining introduction to the series and its young protagonist. This volume is really about setting up the key elements and so the first two cases can feel a little slight but they were great fun nonetheless.

“I don’t want to write about detectives… I want to be one!!”

My Thoughts

The detective manga Case Closed has been on my radar for some time thanks to Tomcat’s enticing reviews of the later volumes in the series. Rather than jump in at the end I thought it best to start at the very beginning with this first volume which Wikipedia tells me is titled The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times.

The protagonist is Jimmy Kudo, a rich and unsupervised teenaged detective story fan. He has grown up studying his parents’ library of vintage detective novels and fancies himself to be a new Sherlock Holmes, honing his deductive and physical abilities in the hopes of emulating his fictional hero’s feats. Though he is only a junior in high school, Jimmy is already putting his skills to the test and building a reputation for himself by assisting the police in their investigations. For instance, when we first meet him he is on the way to announcing the identity of an unlikely murderer in front of a group of suspects.

There is a further short case (which I will get to in a moment) that follows this introduction before an event happens that changes Jimmy in some quite profound ways. After he solves that case he grows suspicious of a pair of men and follows them, only to get caught. Rather than shoot Jimmy, the men decide to poison him by feeding him an experimental drug and leave him for dead. The drug does not work as expected however and rather than kill Jimmy, instead it deages him by about ten years.

Turning to a family friend, an inventor, for help, Jimmy is told he needs to find the original formula to try and reverse its effects on him. To do this it is suggested that he adopt a false identity so the would-be killers do not know he survived and live with his friend Rachel and her private detective father. The idea is that Jimmy will be able to use the father to help him research the villains who had attacked him. Unfortunately Rachel’s father turns out to be a rather inept detective however Jimmy, who rebrands himself as Conan Edogawa after two favorite detective novelists, finds ways to help him solve his cases.

There are three complete cases contained within this volume though they are not all given equal space. The first is easily the simplest, taking place in just one chapter (which are termed files), and it is really used to provide an origin story for the character. It is quite a colorful case however in spite of its short page count.

Jimmy has taken his friend Rachel to the theme park where they go on a roller coaster ride. Everyone is securely strapped into the cars in pairs. During the ride one of the passengers is suddenly decapitated though it does not appear that the ride itself is at fault. Given the distance between the cars and the use of mechanical restraints it seems that the only possible killer would be the victim’s girlfriend who was sat next to him. Of course appearances can be deceptive…

Because the conditions seem to preclude anyone but the girlfriend from being the killer, I think this can be considered an impossible crime. Certainly I think the question of how the crime was achieved receives the bulk of the focus and while I have some doubts whether the killer could actually pull off their rather daring crime without being seen and suspect most will instinctively guess at at least one element of it, I still think it is a pretty creative murder method. It certainly gets things off to an entertaining and rather macabre start!

The second case involves the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s ten year old daughter by a mysterious figure in black. This case initially seems relatively straightforward with it quickly seeming clear what has happened, only for an end of chapter revelation to spin things off in a somewhat different direction.

The main purpose of this case is to establish the challenges that Jimmy in his Detective Conan guise will face in trying to get adults to listen to him. That makes sense as a choice in developing the series though I think it is unfortunate that it results in a case that it driven more by action than points of deduction. I think it does a good job of establishing the basic structure where Rachel’s father is hired to look into a case and Conan finds a way to tag along and influence the investigation, subtly inserting his own theories, and so it is important to the overall development of the series.

The final case is far cleverer and, offers the reader a locked room murder. A beautiful and popular idol consults Rachel’s father to ask him to investigate a series of home intrusions, strange messages and silent phone calls made to her. He accompanies her to her apartment which she left locked but when they open it they find an unknown man lying dead with a knife in his back.

It seems logical that the idol would not have hired a detective to draw attention to the death if she had committed the murder herself but she was the only person who should have had access to her apartment. Of the three cases, this one was easily my favorite. This case is less twisty than the previous one but I think that the solution is much better clued and rather imaginative.

Having discussed the cases briefly, I think I should end by reflecting a little on our young sleuth.

Jimmy is certainly a rather arrogant kid but I could relate to his detective novel fanboying. There is something rather appealing about the idea that simply reading lots of mystery novels could be the basis for a great career as a detective. The change he undergoes is largely physical but it does mean he must adapt his methods too. For one thing, he is incapable of performing some actions physically while perhaps most significantly, he must figure out ways to be able to influence cases when no one will take him seriously. This leads to many of the book’s most comedic and madcap moments.

One complication that Jimmy has to work with is that he must pretend to not be himself around Rachel, apparently to protect her as if the criminals who transformed him learn his identity then she might be in danger. This is perhaps not the most convincing reasoning but at the same time it does avoid the potentially rather uncomfortable problem of the person she is in love with being in the body of an elementary schooler. While the setup is a little weird, I do like the character and I think she has a few nice character moments late in the volume.

Overall then I enjoyed my first encounter with Detective Conan. I enjoyed the silly premise of the series, loved the references to classic crime writers and appreciated the blend of cases. While none of the solutions are likely to blow the reader’s mind, I like the creativity involved. These stories were great fun to read while I look forward to learning the truth behind the greater mysteries concerning the men who attacked Jimmy.

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

The Blurb

Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.

The Verdict

A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

“It can be confidently stated that there is not one writer belonging to the shin honkaku movement who does not hold Tetsuya Ayukawa in the utmost regard.”

Taku Ashibe, Introduction

My Thoughts

For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!

An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.

There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.

The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.

The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.

The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.

It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!

Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?

Second Opinions

I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.

Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as 斜め屋敷の犯罪
English translation published in 2019

The Blurb

The Crooked House sits on a snowbound cliff overlooking icy seas at the remote northern tip of Japan. A curious place for the millionaire Kozaburo Hamamoto to build a house, but even more curious is the house itself – a disorienting maze of sloping floors and strangely situated staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny, lifesize dolls. When a man is found dead in one of the mansion’s rooms, murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances, the police are called. But they are unable to solve the puzzle, and powerless to protect the party of house guests as more bizarre deaths follow.

Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the renowned sleuth, famous for unmasking the culprit behind the notorious Umezawa family massacre. Surely if anyone can crack these cryptic murders he will. But you have all the clues too – can you solve the mystery of the murders in The Crooked House first?

The Verdict

The puzzle construction is technically impressive but I was unconvinced by the motive both in its conception and how it was clued.

It’s been for sale for many years, but it will probably stay that way. It’s less the fault of the remote location; it’s far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away.

My Thoughts

Murder in the Crooked House takes place in an isolated and rather oddly-designed mansion on the northern tip of Japan. The inside of the house is a maze of staircases, requiring guests to go up multiple floors in order to then climb down another staircase to reach their room, and the floors are slightly tilted. Next to the mansion is a large tower made of glass, leaning at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and connected to the main house with a staircase in the style of a drawbridge. This is the sort of architectural design that makes the homes in Death in the House of Rain or The 8 Mansion Murders seem pretty conventional in comparison.

Kozaburo Hamamoto, a retired business executive, has gathered a group of guests to his home to celebrate the Christmas holiday with him most of whom are strangeres to him. Telling them that he loves puzzles, he shares several challenges with them before telling several guests that whoever can solve the mystery of the meaning of a fan-shaped flowerbed at the base of the tower would have his blessing to marry his daughter. Leaving his guests to socialize, he retires to his bedroom and several others follow. During the middle of the night however a scream is heard when one of his guests awakes to see a burned, frostbitten face staring in at her window, seemingly impossible given she is on the top floor, and most of the household rises to investigate.

The exception is Ueda, a chauffeur, who cannot be roused by the other guests. When they break down the locked door to his room they find him stabbed in the chest with a hunting knife, one hand tied to the foot of his foldout bed, and his limbs arranged in a strange pattern. Meanwhile outside they find a dismembered lifesize doll lying in pieces in the snow, two large stakes embedded in the ground and no footprints. And then, with several members of the Police staying in the house, a further murder occurs…

That may sound like a lot of elements but keep in mind that I have only really described in very loose detail the first of what will be a series of murders. There are several additional killings in the book and while there are certainly some similar traits shared between the murders, there are also some curious differences as well as plenty of further odd details to discover about the house.

The book can be divided broadly into four sections which Shimada terms “acts”. The first introduces the characters, contains the events described above and brings us to the point where the police are summoned. The second sees the police investigate and realize they are out of their depth when another murder occurs. The third brings in the fortune teller Kiyoshi Mitarai, the sleuth from The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, to begin his own investigation, culminating in the challenge to the reader before a shorter final act explains the case.

The first two acts are incredibly detailed, explaining various features of the house and key rooms within it at some length, often with the aid of diagrams. These are actually quite useful and for that reason I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this as an ebook utilize a device that is at least as wide as the paperback book to ensure you can take in all of the details.

I personally found the level of detail in those acts to be rather overwhelming. In spite of the diagrams and some pretty clear descriptions, I struggled to visualize the relationships between the different aspects of the house until close to the end. I blame that on my not being a particularly visually imaginative reader when it comes to architecture, something I previously confessed to in my comments on The Honjin Murders. This is hardly the book’s fault – I don’t think it could have been described any better than it is.

Happily though while the architecture may have been beyond me, there were plenty of other details of the crime to intrigue me. It was these elements, such as the long cord on the hunting knife and the golem doll, that interested me most and kept me engaged with the story to persevere throughout its first half.

My interest increased considerably once Kiyoshi Mitarai arrived on the scene. Mitarai remains as brilliant and as infuriating as he was in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. From the point he first appears the style of the story becomes much more direct (thankfully Mitarai is already aware of the key elements of the case avoiding repetition). I also appreciated that he is such a strong and rather abrasive personality because so with so many characters – thirteen inhabitants of the house plus the various investigators – few really seemed to stand out in those early chapters. Indeed I think some of the characters’ personalities become clearer in the process of interacting with him.

Which I suppose brings me to the book’s resolution. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love the way Shimada builds up to the point at which Mitarai nabs the guilty party which struck me as very creative and effective. I was, of course, quite sure who the killer was long before that point though the manner of murder I could not visualize until it was explained. At that point it all became very clear and while I think the idea is clearly quite incredible, I respect the imagination that created it.

The problem for me with the scenario is ultimately one of motive. While I fully concede I should have been able to visualize how the crime was carried out, I did not feel that the reasons for it were clued anywhere near as thoroughly. This is particularly frustrating because as ingenious a method as this is, it strikes me as completely unnecessary and therefore far too convoluted for reasons I’ll go into on a second page linked below.

Overall then I feel rather unsure of how I feel about this book. Its puzzle ideas are quite thrilling and often pretty technically inventive. Some will admire the ambition of Shimada’s creation and they will be right to do so but I really wish it was built on a stronger foundation of motive.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Locked Rooms category as a Silver Age read.

Second Opinions

TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time loved this book far more than me, describing it as a ‘good and memorable locked room novel’. While I was not as enthusiastic, I do echo his calls for more Shimada (and shin honkaku) in translation.

John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books offers a thoughtful comparison of this book and The Honjin Murders describing this as ‘nothing but a puzzle’. I share his preference for The Honjin Murders and would agree with his reasons.

Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Book Details

Collection published in 2018.
Individual story titles and their publication dates are listed in the story-by-story comments section below.

The Blurb

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

The Verdict

An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

The thirteen stories here (perhaps a murderer’s dozen?) represent over a century of Japanese literary innovation in the genre of mystery fiction.

Foreword by Michael Tangeman

My Thoughts

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Book Details

Originally published as 掏摸 (Suri) in 2009.
English translation published in 2012.

This book has a sister volume, Kingdom, which was translated in the same year. The two stories can apparently be read in either order.

The Blurb

A literary crime masterpiece that follows a Japanese pickpocket lost to the machinations of fate. Bleak and oozing existential dread, The Thief is simply unforgettable.

The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections…. But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.

The Verdict

A very short but powerful exploration of the life of a thief with strong characters and thoughtful development of themes.

“The most important thing about carrying out a crime is planning. People who commit crimes without planning are idiots.”

My Thoughts

The Thief is told from the perspective of a nameless thief who has supported himself since his teen years by picking pockets and shoplifting. He is good at what he does, knowing how to evade the eyes of store detectives and the police, though he has started to not even realize when he does it, occasionally finding wallets in his pockets he doesn’t remember taking.

Though he has more than enough to survive, the thief lives a solitary existence. He has no family or friends beyond a couple of fellow pickpockets he has worked with in the past. When one of those, Ishikawa, tells him that he has been told he must recruit him to help out with a heist the thief agrees. The job is supposed to be a simple one where the gang steal some money and papers from a safe and they pull it off with ease but the next day they learn that the victim was brutally murdered after they left.

The book is a short one and while I would suggest that it is more focused on character than plotting. I will say that I do not expect that readers will be surprised at the general direction of the story but that the details and the development of theme, combined with the novel’s brevity, make for a surprisingly weighty read.

I had only read one other Nakamura novella prior to this one, The Gun, which was his very first work. That was of a similar length and was also clearly intended as a character study but where that work built a sense of dread about where the story was headed, inching slowly towards a grim inevitability, this story feels quite different. Certainly we will be aware of the danger facing the protagonist but where The Gun features a character descending into obsession and inhumanity, here we have a character who clearly is searching for the light, even if he knows he will never escape his lifestyle.

This idea is most clearly shown in his actions towards a pair of characters he encounters at several points in the story. His actions, while not exactly heroic, show him in a generally positive light and establish him as far more likeable than the protagonist in The Gun. In other words, I think readers will want him to survive and hope that he finds a way out of his predicament, even if we recognize that this seems unlikely.

While we do not learn a lot of detail about the thief’s background, we do become quite versed in his lifestyle. Nakamura carefully describes different aspects of pickpocketing and thievery, painting a convincing picture of that life and giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to live that way. The material feels well-researched and there is even a little interesting background about some noteable historical pickpockets and thieves, helping flesh out that world for readers even more.

Though the bulk of the story explores the character’s relationship with his chosen profession, there are some developments that compel him to action. This involves the introduction of a figure who serves as the antagonist of the piece though I think that term is not entirely accurate to his role within the story. This character’s appearance, while brief, feels substantial because they are not just representing an obstacle for the thief to overcome but because of the attitudes they express about everyone other than themselves.

Key developments happen pretty quickly and information learned fills in many of the gaps for us, helping the reader understand exactly what happened though a few of the broader details remain sketchy – no doubt because they aren’t really relevant to the thief’s story or the broader themes being discussed. This story is not, after all, about the crime but about the effect it has on the criminal.

It builds up to a rather powerful finish that some will doubtlessly find frustrating, though I found it quite intriguing. The ending provides a clear statement of the antagonist’s perspective and philosophy but Nakamura leaves a tiny sliver of space for the reader to consider and reject it. This is not exactly an open-ended conclusion – it does tie up several loose ends quite tidily. Instead it represents a sort of philosophical challenge to the reader, encouraging a judgment from the reader. As an exploration of theme it is a highly effective ending but those principally interested in the narrative may feel a little underwhelmed.

Which I suppose brings me to the question of genre.

One of the most tiresome discussions that people get into about this book is whether it is crime fiction at all. Those arguing this view typically suggest that the book should be read as literary fiction. The reason that this is tiresome is that unless you are merchandising this in a bookshop or library the question is entirely academic. I would suggest that you can have equally rewarding experiences reading it as either of those two forms though personally I would suggest that it is both.

Whether you come to this for an exploration of the human condition or to read a criminous tale of a safe-cracking gone wrong, I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I far preferred this to The Gun and hope to get around to its similarly short sister volume, The Kingdom, at some point soon.

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

Murder at Mt. Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert B. Rohmer

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as W No Higeki
English translation first published in 1987

The Blurb

January 3. Asahi Hills, a posh and isolated village set below the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, is the home of Yohei – “Grandpa” – Wada, president of the immensely successful Wada Pharmaceuticals, and the destination of Jane Prescott. An American student, Jane has been invited to the imposing family chateau by the patriarch’s grand-niece, Chiyo, to help revise her English thesis. Feeling quite out of place in the midst of the Wada’s yearly family reunion, Jane sets to work immediately with the intention of finishing her promised task and clearing out as soon as possible.

That is, until Chiyo comes running into the living room three hours later, her sleeves drenched in blood and the irrevocable words “I killed Grandpa” on her lips.

Convinced that the murder was accidental and committed in self-defense, the Wada family rallies around the fragile girl, vowing to protect her from prosecution, and save the family name from disgrace. But the family’s cleverly and carefully laid plans go awry. The police find obvious clues that lead them directly to Chiyo. But the clues are too obvious; so obvious that Jane begins to suspect sabotage. But who would betray the gentle Chiyo in such a way?

The Verdict

This boasts a great set-up but the rushed investigation and resolution phases of the novel made it feel a little anticlimactic.

“You see, what I told you earlier was true. All the men of the Wada family have an uncontrollable lust for young ladies.”

My Thoughts

Each year the Wada family gather to celebrate the New Year at a villa near Mt. Fuji hosted by Yohei Wada, the head of the Wada Pharmaceuticals company. It is meant to be an intimate family celebration but this year a stranger joins them, an American student named Jane Prescott who has been invited by Chiyo, one of the youngest members of the family, to help her work on her English thesis.

Soon after arriving Jane is warned by a family member about the men in the family’s reputation for womanizing, noting that this is true even of those men who have married into the family. A short while later this seems to be confirmed when Chiyo emerges from Yohei’s bedroom, her arms covered in blood, saying that he had tried to proposition her and, when she threatened to kill herself rather than sleep with her Great Uncle, he attacked her causing her to accidentally stab him in the chest.

The family, each of whom are fond of Chiyo, decide to work together to try and cover up the crime. They develop a plan in which they will send Chiyo back to the city and make it appear that an outsider broke into the home later that night. This means finding ways to mask the timeline, leading to some interesting trickery. Unfortunately however all their hard work is undone when the Police arrive and we are left to wonder if someone in the family is sabotaging their efforts.

Crime fiction readers today are quite used to the idea of reading fiction in translation but when Murder at Mt. Fuji was first released in translation it was much more novel. Only a handful of Japanese mysteries had been translated at that point and so it appears that there was some concern about whether American readers would be comfortable trying something that may have felt very foreign to them. The result was not only a title change, taking us from The Tragedy of W to the much clearer Murder at Mt. Fuji, clearly establishing both the locale and it being a genre work, but there are apparently also some other significant changes to the story with a character being rewritten as an American student. For more on that see Ho-Ling Wong’s blog post about the book which I have linked to below.

Being unable to read the original work for myself, it’s hard for me to offer a take on how this has changed the work. I am under no illusions that translated fiction will be an exact reproduction of a work and I know that translators often have to make adjustments to help readers understand references or themes better. Here is feels a little more trivial because it seems to be quite incidental to the story – Jane’s background as a foreigner is rather irrelevant once you get beyond her introduction and certainly has no bearing on the plot. In other words, the change seems to be a largely cosmetic one.

The premise of this story is an engaging one that seems to fall neatly into the howcatchem school of inverted crime stories. Here we see how the Wada family come to decide on a cover-up and we are aware of each of the tricks they have used to try and make the corpse appear to have died after Chiyo left. Some of these tricks are obvious, such as the attempts to create the appearance of the intruder and to cool the body, but a few struck me as both clever and novel. This process is quite interesting to follow with Natsuki offering quite a bit of information about how time of death is typically determined. When the time comes for the police to arrive it seems that they have thought of everything and it is easy to imagine that the family might get away with their deception.

These early chapters also give us a pretty good sense of the various family members and their different personalities. Natsuki is good about explaining these characters’ relationships to Yohei though I felt less confident about how they related to one another. While this is not critical to the story, this is one of those cases where I wish that a family tree had been provided for the reader. Still, regardless of those genetic relationships I felt I got a pretty good handle on each character and their emotional relationships with the other members of the family which ends up being so important to this story.

Following several chapters of careful setup where we observe the family’s preparations, the police investigation by contrast feels rather rushed and frankly a little anticlimactic. Natsuki gives these investigations an almost comic air as we see the police repeatedly recasting the results of their investigation in different lights as new pieces of information turn up, trying desperately to spin these flip-flops as part of a cunning plan. It’s pretty amusing and I think Natsuki does generate some suspense as we wait for the investigators to connect the information they have but those hoping for a careful dissection of a crime from the investigators’ perspectives are likely to be a little disappointed. The investigators really aren’t meant to be the heroes of this story and so these chapters are merely a bridge that transitions us from one type of mystery novel to another.

I was a little conflicted about whether to discuss this as I typically try and avoid detailed discussion of developments so late in a story (at least, sans spoiler tags) but in this case it’s in the blurb and if I failed to at least mention it those of you who do not share my love of the inverted crime may pass over this one a little too quickly. So, let’s be clear: in addition to the inverted form there is also a whodunnit aspect to this story as we wonder who is tipping off the cops and why.

I feel that Natsuki executes this shift in styles pretty well, hinting at it before providing the reader with confirmation that someone must be playing a double role. It’s an intriguing idea but I think it is not really exploited to its full potential. This situation seems ideally set up to generate resentments and suspicions but instead we rush through that phase of the story with the story instead going through a further transition into thriller mode where Jane as a heroine is put in peril by the killer.

Jane is certainly a heroine that the reader can empathize with. She is an outsider who is unfortunate to get caught up in the events of that night. She cares about Chiyo, recognizing the unfairness that her friend is being discarded by a member of her family and she instinctively wants to find the party involved. That is all pretty convincing. Unfortunately the resolution is reached rather too quickly and so lacks the impact I think it would have had for a little extra snooping or some further direct confrontations with members of the family.

I do want to stress that I did enjoy my experience with this book overall. This is one of the few inverted mysteries I have encountered that attempts to explicitly discuss and work through the medical evidence of a crime scene which I think is done pretty well. The setup here is superb and I just wished that the story had been resolved with that same careful pacing and attention to detail.

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 World Traveler category as a Silver Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong wrote about his experience reading a translation of this translation. One of the comments in that excellent post is the source for the information about the changes made for the English language market.

Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time also shared thoughts on this book, saying it has ‘something completely different and very fresh to offer’ as an example of the inverted mystery.

Finally these are not related specifically to this book but discuss some of the challenges and approaches to translating crime fiction. I recently (virtually) attended a discussion between Jennifer Arnold and the translators Antonia Lloyd Jones and Peter Bush that I found interesting and which you can watch for free. I also strongly recommend the episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where Jim chats with Louise Heal Kawai who translated The Honjin Murders and several other works of classic Japanese mystery fiction.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes

Book Details

The Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴, Kuro-tokage) was originally published in 1934
Beast in The Shadows (陰獣, Injū) was originally published in 1928
English translations published as a collection in 2006

The Blurb (Trimmed for Space)

The Black Lizard (Kurotokage) first appeared as a magazine serial, published in twelve monthly installments between January and December, 1934. It features Rampo’s main detective character, Akechi Kogorō: a figure who combines elements of Poe’s Auguste Dupin with the gentleman adventurers of British golden age detective literature. The Black Lizard herself is a master criminal and femme fatale, whose charged relationship with detective Akechi and unconcealed sadism have inspired shuddering admiration in generations of readers…

Themes of deviance and sado-masochism are central to Beast in the Shadows (Inju), a tale from the height of Rampo’s grotesque period, which appeared in serial form between August and October, 1928. This tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and dark crimes stands in stark contrast to the genteel detective stories then popular in English literature. It bears comparison with the American pulp fiction serial, the genre that led to the classic modern American crime novel, and with the more extravagant moments of film noir. Beast in the Shadows, however, recalls classic themes in Japanese popular fiction, with origins in the illustrated novels and mass market shockers of the Edo period (1600-1868)…

The Verdict

A fun collection of two novellas. The Black Lizard is pure pulpy thriller stuff and good fun but Beast in the Shadows is a much darker and more interesting work. That story, while shorter, is worth the cost of the collection in itself.


My Thoughts

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most enduring and consequential writers of mystery fiction in Japan from the early 20th century. His work is heavily influenced by the likes of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, so the focus is often not on crafting fair play stories of detection but memorable moments of horror, discomfort and adventure. I previously reviewed a collection of his short stories on this blog, many of which memorably play with grotesque and disturbing types of crime.

In addition to his own stories for adults and children, he established a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, the Detective Author’s Club (later renamed as the Mystery Writers of Japan) and wrote critical essays about the history and the form of the genre. His works were frequently adapted into films both during and after his lifetime and his significance is recognized in the name of a Japanese literary award, The Edogawa Rampo Prize, for unpublished mystery authors which was introduced in the 1950s.

In short, there was no way I would commit to writing several months weekly posts about Japanese works of mystery and crime fiction without including at least one of his works. Based on this experience I may try and rework my schedule to make that two…

This volume contains two works from earlier in his career. Both stories were originally serialized for publication in magazines which is quite evident in the way the stories are structured. Many chapters seem to end either on a significant revelation or with moments of peril, particularly in the case of the first story in this collection – The Black Lizard.

The story is essentially inverted with the reader being party to the planning of a daring crime in which the titular crime boss, The Black Lizard, plans to kidnap the daughter of one of Osaka’s leading jewel merchants as a means of securing a fabulous prize – the largest diamond in Japan. Being a sporting sort however she sends him notice of her intent to kidnap his daughter, leading him to engage that great detective Akechi Kogorō to protect her.

While this story features a detective, do not expect much, if anything, in the way of detection. The style is really pulpy and layers plenty of plot twists and reversals on top of each other, building a story that seems to get crazier and more outlandish as it goes on. Expect plenty of disguises, identity tricks, lots of random moments of nudity (though these are not described in detail), a truly perverse museum and snakes.

Perhaps my favorite bit of craziness though is the very casual way in which Rampo drops detailed references to some of his other stories as works of fiction, having characters comment on how one plot development is reminiscent of the plots of a celebrated short story. It is all very meta and fits the general arch tone of the piece.

The most striking aspect of the story, other than Akechi himself, is the character of our villain – the Black Lizard. Though her entrance performing a naked dance for her henchmen to the accompaniment of ‘an erotic saxophone’ feels quite ludicrous, Rampo quickly establishes her as smart, ruthless and cunning. While the warning to her victim is silly, I really enjoyed the way that she directly engages with her adversary and that she seems to be as interested in the game she is playing with Akechi as she is in achieving her real goal. It makes for an entertaining, page turning read.

As much as I enjoyed The Black Lizard however, I think Beast in the Shadows is the more interesting work. Though shorter at just a hundred pages, it is both a really cleverly worked detective story and also an early work of ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque nonsense). As Rampo’s career developed his work would increasingly shift in that direction, in part because of demand from his readership, and those themes are often associated with his work for adults.

The story is told by a writer of detective stories who has been approached by a married woman desperate for his help. She tells him that as a teenager she had lost her virginity to a man who became obsessed with her, stalking her and threatening her when their relationship broke down. A sudden move seemed to put a temporary stop to his activities and she subsequently met a merchant and married though she never told him about her prior affair.

Recently however she started to receive letters once again, detailing her movements within the family home and threatening both her life and that of her husband. The narrator visits her home and after making some disturbing discoveries devises a plan to protect her but when her husband ends up dead they worry that she will be next.

Rampo manages to balance the moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

The length of the work makes it hard to offer much detailed comment without getting into spoiler territory. I can say though that the pacing here is as strong as the atmosphere and that I think the two characters we spend the most time with – the narrator and Shizuko, the married woman – are interesting. Though there is one development related to one of the other character’s motives that is only speculated upon rather than clearly established and described as fact.

It is a fascinating and chilling read that for me is worth the price of the collection on its own, offering a view of both sides of Rampo’s writing. This left me excited to read more of Rampo’s work – now I just need to decide where to go next. If you are a fan, please feel free to offer advice!

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 Dangerous Beasts category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong’s blog is a great resource offering a number of posts both about Rampo’s works and also some of the film and television adaptations of them. Though it is now over a decade old, this post about Rampo’s works in translation, then a shorter list, is a nice starting point. There is even a translation of one of his short stories – One Person, Two Identities (Hitori Futayaku).

Newcomer by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray

Book Details

Originally published in 2009 as 新参者
English translation published in 2018
Detective Kaga #8
Preceded by 赤い指 (Akai yubi)
Followed by 麒麟の翼 (Kirin no tsubasa)
Neither title is available in English translation at the time of posting

The Blurb

Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department has just been transferred to a new precinct in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo. Newly arrived, but with a great deal of experience, Kaga is promptly assigned to the team investigating the murder of a woman. But the more he investigates, the greater number of potential suspects emerges.

It isn’t long before it seems nearly all the people living and working in the business district of Nihonbashi have a motive for murder. To prevent the murderer from eluding justice, Kaga must unravel all the secrets surrounding a complicated life. Buried somewhere in the woman’s past, in her family history, and the last few days of her life is the clue that will lead to the murderer. 

The Verdict

Never breathtaking but very readable, this is an enjoyable and surprisingly traditional mystery story with some very appealing subplots.


My Thoughts

Newcomer is broken into nine chapters, each based around a character who lives or works in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. These characters are all linked, directly or indirectly, to a murder that took place in an apartment in the area and while some do not know the victim well enough to be considered suspects, each is able to provide some information that will be important to learning more about the victim or understanding her movements and activities on the day of her murder.

The victim is a recently-divorced woman who works as a translator and is a newcomer to the area. She is found strangled in her apartment by a friend with an implication being made that she must have known her killer to allow them inside her home. The problem lies in understanding why someone who appears to have been well liked and was so new to the area would be murdered.

One of the team investigating the case is another newcomer, Detective Kaga, who has recently been transferred to the local police precinct. Unlike the other investigators he dresses in a rather slovenly way and seems to focus on aspects of the case that seem irrelevant. For example, he takes it on himself to investigate the origins of the box of ningyo-yaki (molded snack cakes) left at the scene and a dog that she mentioned petting in an email.

Each chapter sees Kaga pursue one such line of inquiry, speaking to the locals and attempting to get the information he needs from them. Inevitably in each case he is met with some problem that hinders that investigation and he has to use his observational and deductive skills to acquire that information anyway.

Throughout this process we remain on the outside of the investigation, seeing Kaga’s activities through the eyes of those who interact with him rather than sharing in his thought processes. There is a good reason for this as knowing why he is interested in a small detail in some cases would give away to the reader too much information about the significance of that information or what his theory is as to the solution of the murder case. Still, while he may be kept at a bit of a distance, his habit of befriending the people he is speaking with and expressing empathy for their problems does mean that he comes off as a fundamentally warm character and we are able to infer meanings and begin to recognize connections between each of the chapters.

One other slight oddity of this structure is that the investigation does not appear entirely chronologically. This happens because most of the investigations happen concurrently over a space of time and so the events at the end of one chapter could happen after the events at the start of the next one. To give a clearer example, at the start of chapter four there is a reference made to how Kaga plans to go on to investigate a matter we learned about in the middle of the second chapter.

This sort of deviation from telling a story in chronological order can sometimes feel gimmicky or unnecessarily complicated but here it made a great deal of sense to me. Given that each of the details involve a limited cast of characters, many of whom do not cross over into other strands of the story, it makes sense to consolidate that material and to focus on the information that will be gained. This not only gives additional focus to those small details, it also allows for each of these chapters to feel quite self-contained which gives the first two thirds of the novel the feel of being a series of connected short stories.

These chapters are quite varied in content and theme, though they often discuss the unique character of the neighborhood and the traditional businesses you can find there. There is also a fair amount of reflection on the increasing financial challenges that those sorts of businesses will face in the years to come.

My favorite of the chapters, though it is the one that features the least detection and the most intuition, is the third one titled The Daughter-in-Law of the China Shop. It revolves around the tensions between a man’s new wife and his mother which are rooted in a thoughtless action taken by one of them. I felt that Higashino represented the domestic disharmony convincingly, rendering each of those characters well and I really loved the way their story ended which struck me as a very appropriate and credible outcome.

The less positive consequence of this approach is that we are over a third of the way into the novel before we have a proper sense of exactly what happened in the apartment or even a proper description of the crime scene. The first chapter therefore feels a little odd as we are following the investigation of a crime without knowing much about its details. That didn’t bother me too much in terms of engaging with what I was reading – each of the stories told in the chapters struck me as interesting – but it did mean that it was sometimes difficult to relate what we learn back to the original murder case, at least early in the book.

Overall though I think it is successful and works within the context of the slower, more contemplative style of story that Higashino is trying to tell here. I think that is reflected not only in the amount of space in the book given to developing the themes about the changes happening but also in how the murder is relatively simple with a solution that is built upon just a couple of pieces of positive evidence.

I think it would be fair to say that as much as I enjoyed it, that it was not exactly what I had expected. Other than the story not being told in strict chronological order, the book reads as a pretty straightforward though entertaining whodunit. There are no big twists here, nor any intricately-worked plan to unpick. If you come at this expecting another Malice or The Devotion of Suspect X then you will likely be disappointed.

Personally though I enjoyed it and wish that more of the author’s work and the Detective Kaga series in particular would appear in translation. I find him a charming protagonist, if a little reminiscent of Columbo in that everyone underestimates him based on his appearance, and I really appreciate how observant and attuned to human relationships he is. For now however I should probably be grateful for what I have – particularly as I have a couple of Detective Galileo stories on my TBR pile.

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