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.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Coward

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Le Bourreau pleure
English translation first published in 2017

The Blurb

On a quiet mountain road near Barcelona, a woman steps out in front of a car. When the driver, a well-known artist, stops to some to her aid, he finds she is alive, but without any memory of who she is or where she has come from. As he tries to help her remember her past, the artist finds himself falling in love, but as secrets from the woman’s forgotten life start to come to light, he finds his new romance turning into a nightmare…

The Verdict

A powerful and effective noir story which delivers a suitably punchy climax.


My Thoughts

Frédéric Dard was tremendously prolific author and only a tiny fraction of his work has so far been translated into English. I have previously read and reviewed two of his other novellas on this blog, both of which were also part of the Pushkin Vertigo range, and I liked both tremendously. Happily I am able to say that this my experiences with this book were equally pleasing.

I had found both of the other Dard titles I read to be short but punchy reads and this is no exception. He writes with a splendid sense of economy that helps focus on what he establishes as the themes of his work, really immersing the reader in the dilemma the protagonist finds themselves in.

This novella, like the others I had read, belongs to the noir style of storytelling. Here the protagonist is Daniel Mermet, a French artist who is on vacation near Barcelona. Here he finds himself in a situation in which his actions, though generally well-intentioned, only seem to lead him towards misery and disaster.

Daniel is driving late at night when a woman carrying a violin steps in front of his car. Everything happens so suddenly that he cannot avoid the collision and she is knocked to the ground, her violin and the case smashed in the impact. Daniel is worried but finding that she is still breathing decides to take her back to his hotel and get her some medical attention.

It is easy to empathize with Daniel as he finds himself in a difficult and possibly dangerous situation. We are told in the first couple of pages that the collision was no accident – that the woman had leapt in front of the car. With no witnesses and a very limited command of the Spanish language or knowledge of the area, his choice to take her to his hotel and summon medical attention there is understandable. It may not be the perfect choice but it was certainly not malicious either.

The physical damage from the accident is fortunately quite limited so she makes a swift recovery. Unfortunately though when the woman wakes she has no memory at all of who she is beyond that she is French. When the consulate tells Daniel they are unable to help her, he decides he will piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity.

The mystery of the woman’s identity sits at the heart of the story. Daniel will play investigator, using small clues and observations about the woman and her possessions to try and discover who she is. This is necessary both because he cannot leave her alone without a memory but also because he is falling in love with her. Something within him needs to know.

Based on the circumstances of the injury though the reader will already be aware that the answers will not provide happiness or the closure Daniel seeks. This realization on the reader’s part is the source of the tragedy of the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. The woman she is now is someone he loves but he will not feel comfortable unless he can be sure of the woman she was.

Dard handles this simple idea extremely well, setting up a credible scenario in which Daniel will have to confront this question. The choice he has is either to abandon her or to see the investigation through in the hope it will enable them to be together. As we follow that brief investigation we are aware of how his discoveries are affecting him and how he struggles with the question of what to reveal to the woman.

Just as it was easy to empathize with the very likeable Daniel at the moment of the accident, it is equally easy to understand how difficult each of his decisions are. Dard is really effective at communicating Daniel’s shifting emotional state as well as that of the woman, all the while building to a dark and devastating conclusion. This emotional journey is really effective and I found myself completely engrossed in the story, aware that what I wanted and what was likely to happen were clearly not going to be the same thing.

I am reluctant to write much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it too much – this is, after all, a very brief work. I should probably take a moment however to judge the mystery elements of the novella in their own right.

Earlier I described this as a brief investigation and what I meant by that is that while the mystery has enormous significance, Daniel will not need to work particularly hard to uncover the truth. This is a matter of following up on the leads he already has – the question is whether he will have the nerve to see the matter through to the end.

The reader may well deduce some aspects of the woman’s past based on the early clues but too much is revealed to the reader right before the solution is given to be able to effectively play armchair detective. I think that fits Dard’s focus on the emotional component of this story and was broadly in line with my expectations but were someone to read this primarily for the mystery I think they would be underwhelmed. For Dard the mystery is a device to instigate uncertainty and drama rather than the point of his tale.

It is a superbly well crafted story with some strong characterization and a compelling problem to explore. I was, once again, impressed with Dard and I am certainly not regretting having previously bought up all the other Dard titles published in translation. It seems I have some good reading ahead of me!

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The King of Fools
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1952

Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.

The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.

One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.

A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.

This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.

To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.

It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.

I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.

There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.

I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.

Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.

I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!

Death Going Down By María Angélica Bosco, translated by Lucy Greaves

DGD
Death Going Down
María Angélica Bosco
Originally Published 1954

Since starting this blog last year I have had some really positive experiences with the Pushkin Vertigo novels I have tried. I love how this range is bringing back works into print from different regions of the world and I have gushed about the beautiful cover designs that adorn these titles. While much of my collection is electronic these days, these gorgeous volumes are ones I make the effort to purchase physical copies of.

María Angélica Bosco is an author I was not familiar with before acquiring this book but the cover proudly declares that she is known as ‘the Argentinian Agatha Christie’ and we all know that this is never, EVER a misleading piece of advertising copy. Anyhow…

Death Going Down was Bosco’s first detective story. It begins with a man returns home in the early hours of the morning after a night on the town to discover a dead body of a woman in the elevator who has apparently taken cyanide. She does not live in the apartment building yet she has a key.

There are no signs of a struggle which raises the question: why would a woman go to an apartment block she does not live in and commit suicide in an elevator?

On the case are Inspector Ericourt and Blasi, a pair of Police investigators who are never really introduced to the reader. I was a little surprised when I realized that this was their first appearance in a novel because I had expected a little more focus on establishing these characters but the only description we really get is that one is ‘a corpulent middle-aged man’ and a ‘younger man’. The other scant details we get have to emerge later in the novel through conversation.

The cast of suspects fares a little better though the characterizations often feel somewhat broad and unsympathetic. Several of the male characters come off as controlling and misogynistic while the caretaker’s wife is nosy and an immigrant woman is quiet and defers to her brother. The reader is unlikely to find anyone to sympathize with here and so whatever interest there is will have to come from the case itself.

That is not to say however that these characters are uninteresting. Bosco gives most of her characters at least one secret they are concealing either from the investigation or from the other people in their lives that Ericourt and Blasi will be able to discover at key points in the narrative. Not all of these will surprise but these small discoveries contribute to the sense that the investigation is making progress and help us understand some of the relationships between the suspects.

This sense of small, incremental progress characterizes the investigation as a whole in that it is quite slowly paced and based on trying to make sense out of confusion by bringing those secrets into the open. The detectives are not cut in the rigorous mold of an Inspector French, nor do they approach things from a psychological angle. Instead they rely on a mix of intuition and experience as they make connections between the pieces of information they have at their disposal to try to come up with a theory that will make sense of all of the facts of the case.

I did not inherently dislike this approach but I do question its execution here. Unfortunately I felt that the pacing was surprisingly slow at points for a novella that is just 150 pages long and which contains multiple murders by its end. Furthermore I was disappointed by the solution that Bosco presents us with, feeling that the choice of murderer was obvious and uninspired. There was at least one suspect that I felt would have been a more interesting choice and several that would have been more surprising. Instead the ending feels comfortable, predictable and safe which are not the attributes I associate with this particular range of novels.

Death Going Down may not have lived up to my high expectations but it does at least have a few things going for it. The first is its post-war Argentine setting which I think is effectively conveyed even with Bosco’s economical storytelling style. While I think the killer’s identity was a bore, I appreciated that their plan is quite clever and stood a good chance of going undetected if an element of it had not gone wrong. Finally I did find some of the suspects’ secrets that are uncovered to be interesting, even if the process of discovering them is a little drawn out.

Though I didn’t love this title, I would be interested in sampling some more of her work from later in her career. Unfortunately this seems to be the only one of her works to have been translated into English so I doubt there will be much chance of that happening any time soon.

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.

The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard, translated by Frank Wynne

Gravediggers
The Gravediggers’ Bread
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1956

Frédéric Dard has been on my list of authors I wanted to try for an age so when I read that The Gravediggers’ Bread was an inverted novel I couldn’t resist starting there.

The book’s premise bears some similarities to James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least in terms of the initial scenario. Some elements and moments may seem familiar – particularly a biting of a lip that draws blood during a kiss – which led me to wonder if this was an intentional homage. Ultimately though the two novels take quite different paths and should be considered entirely separate works.

The story concerns a young man, Blaise, who is visiting a small provincial town in the hopes of securing a sales job for a factory. On arriving he discovers that he has got there too late and someone else was already hired. He is telephoning the friend who encouraged him to try to let him know the bad news when he discovers a woman’s wallet. When he returns it to her, the woman’s husband suggests that he could take him on to assist with sales for his funeral business. Blaise does not care much for the work but is drawn to the man’s wife and chooses to stay for her sake.

The Gravediggers’ Bread is a very short novel being just 160 pages long so I want to avoid going into too much detail about what prompts the crime or the circumstances in which it is done. What I can say is that there is a murder committed by the narrator and we follow Blaise’s attempts to avoid detection. While the identity of the victim will likely be quite obvious, the circumstances of the death and particularly the cover up are entertaining.

Where the novel is most successful is the building of tension as the reader wonders just how Blaise may be caught. Dard builds suspense very effectively in the second half of the novel in a couple of ways. Firstly by reminding us how precarious his position would be should the murder be discovered and secondly by allowing the reader clues as to some of the ways that might happen. But even then Dard has a further twist or two in store for the reader. Even if you work out where this story will ultimately be headed, the execution of these moments is quite sublime, building to a very satisfying conclusion.

While the characterizations within this story initially seem quite simple and familiar, I was surprised by some of the depth that Dard is able to give the relationships between Blaise, the undertaker and his wife given the short page count. Blaise’s role in particular is complex, befitting his role as the narrator, and we may question whether he is as different from the undertaker as he imagines.

There is a moment in the development of that relationship that did leave me somewhat uncomfortable and a little unsure how to interpret it. There is a moment where Blaise exercises some force to initiate a sexual encounter, apparently against the other character’s will. While it seems to begin without consent, following the encounter it never seems to be referred to and Blaise implies that part of the reason for this is the inadequacies of her husband as a lover.

Now Blaise is certainly not a hero, no matter how he may perceive himself and it should be said that the character is the narrator and may not be capable of putting his actions in any sort of context. It is certainly not surprising that this character would not be troubled by his actions and there are some possible character-based explanations for her acceptance of this treatment but as his narrative and perception of those events is never challenged and her feelings are never explained, it is left to linger uncomfortably a little like with a comparable scene in Gone With The Wind. At least for me.

Though I found Germaine’s reaction problematic, I can’t deny that their relationship is interesting and it becomes only more so as the novel nears its conclusion. Dard’s plotting is excellent and while I have read enough inverted stories not to be surprised by the conclusion, it is one of the better examples of that type of ending to an inverted mystery. I think fans of noir fiction will also appreciate elements of that ending too.

Dard creates some striking moments in this story and shows an admirable economy in his plotting. The 160 pages seem to whizz by and each plot twist is superbly executed, even if you pick up on clues as to where this story is going. I was left feeling very satisfied by the resolution to the novel and felt that it struck some interesting and, at times, provocative points in terms of its characterizations.

I am interested to try some other works by Dard and if anyone has any recommendations (in English translation, please) I would be very happy to receive them.

Review copy provided by the publisher. The novel is being published by Pushkin Vertigo in the UK on June 28 and in the US on August 28.

The Murdered Banker by Augusto de Angelis, translated by Jill Foulston

murderedbanker
The Murdered Banker
Augusto de Angelis
Originally Published 1935
Commissario De Vincenzi #1
Followed by Sei donne e un libro

Earlier this month I reviewed a nineteenth century Italian crime novel, The Priest’s Hat by Emilio de Marchi. In the comments Kate mentioned that Pushkin Vertigo had republished several novels by the early twentieth century Italian crime novelist Augusto de Angelis. After reading up a little on the author, including Kate’s excellent review of this novel, I decided I would try out the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, The Murdered Banker.

The book concerns the murder of a banker within the home of Aurigi, one of De Vincenzi’s old school friends. That friend had come to see him on the night in question after spending several hours walking the streets. In the process of their talk he divulged his precarious financial situation and confessed that he was obliged to pay the banker a sum of money by the end of that evening that he would not be able to meet.

De Vincenzi receives a tip-off about the body and arrives to find the banker shot dead. Curiously there is a vial of poison also in the room while the banker also possesses some documents that will further complicate the case, although as the author holds off on revealing the details of these to the reader for some time I will not explain their significance.

A further complication comes when that suspect’s prospective father-in-law declares that he believes Aurigi is guilty and that his daughter will not marry him. He even takes the step of hiring a private investigator to prove his guilt.

Based on the facts and the attitudes of those closest to him, it seems clear that Aurigi must be guilty and yet the neatness of the case bother De Vincenzi who reasonably questions why, if Aurigi went to such lengths to organize a killing to prevent his ruin, he didn’t find a way to avoid tying himself so blatantly to the crime.

I will confess that I initially struggled a little to adjust to the novel’s rhythm and some of the poetic turns of phrase which sit alongside some much more direct writing. The early chapters reminded me somewhat of the start to Pietr the Latvian, the first Maigret novel, which I admired more than I liked. There is a certain grimness and solitude to those opening chapters and there are some moments in the case where he acts in a way that seems a little underhand or callous, such as how he allows Aurigi to come upon the body with no warning to try to see if he really will be surprised.

I suspect that it didn’t help that some of the complications of the case that add interest are purposefully withheld from the reader for a number of chapters to build tension or to make their revelation more dramatic. While I think the book is still fair play in the sense that the information is revealed before the identity of the killer, it does feel very arbitrary and artificial and I think it detracts a little from the gritty realist tone de Angelis seems to be trying to cultivate at points.

It should also be pointed out that we are dealing with an extremely limited cast of characters. While de Angelis presents us with five suspects in the course of the novel, he almost immediately (and convincingly) rules two of them out of contention and features one so little that you will likely forget we should even be considering them. That leaves us with just two characters to pick from and I think the structure of the narrative makes one candidate much more likely than the other. In short, I don’t think that this is particularly mysterious.

And yet… It is a pretty good story.

The turning point for me was the revelation of the contents of the banker’s pockets. In that moment the story became more complex and intriguing while I became, at least for a time, a little less clear of how things would fit together. From that point onwards the revelations come quite quickly, changing our understanding of the case and helping us to understand several characters’ seemingly erratic behavior. As a result my interest grew considerably.

While the questions of who committed the crime and why are straightforward and ultimately quite predictable, the question of how it was achieved and how they will be caught prove much more intriguing. This is not because the plan is complex but because it is so simple and seemingly foolproof were it not for one detail being overlooked.

There is an element of the resolution that never quite satisfies me – the gambit where the detective, being unable to prove his suspicions through reasoning, seeks to trap the villain in a ruse that will demonstrate their guilt. It is certainly credible in this case that this would work and yet I feel that there is something a little cheap about this sort of resolution. This, combined with the limited pool of suspects, leads me to think that the book is best viewed as an adventure or thriller. The reader can certainly work out many aspects of the case but really this is about the journey and the excitement of seeing how everything will resolve.

Though I cannot claim that my first taste of de Angelis’ work was always to my tastes, it is undoubtedly a very interesting work and I found my appreciation for it grew as it went on. As the novel continued I found I was liking the hero more and more, leaving me hopeful that other books in the series will appeal more consistently to my tastes.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Death by Shooting (How)

The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

TheMasterKey
The Master Key
Masako Togawa
Originally Published 1962

The Master Key is a fascinating read that defies easy categorization. The cover of this Pushkin Vertigo reissue features a quote from a review in The Times that describes it as an ‘atmospheric Japanese Thriller’ yet while it has suspenseful moments, I think that gives a slightly inaccurate impression of what the book will be like.

Instead I think the book is best described as a series of puzzles and revelations that the reader slowly pieces together to form a clear impression of what has happened. Events are told out of order and often seem to be unconnected yet Togawa works them together in the most extraordinary way in the closing chapter and epilogue to make sense of them all.

The book is also somewhat unsettling, dealing as it does with the secret burial of a child and the sense of intrusion into our private spaces both physical and emotional. While there are few instances of violence explicitly shown, the reader is at times experiencing intrusions from the perspective of the person whose space is being violated and at others from the perspective of the voyeur. And, as we read, we come to see that the boundaries between those situations are less clear than they initially seem.

Togawa’s story is set in an apartment building inhabited exclusively by single women. At the start of the novel we are told that the building is about to be relocated a small distance to enable the road to be widened. The residents have been told that this can be achieved without their even needing to leave the building and that if they were to place a glass of water on a shelf during the move it would not spill.

As residents retreat into their rooms preparing to carry out this experiment at least one person within the building is aware that a secret will be unearthed when the foundations are exposed. We also learn that there is a nervous energy building among the residents as a master key that can unlock every door in the building had been stolen several months before, leading residents to feel uneasy in their own homes and that, at any moment, their secrets may be revealed. This is a truly unsettling idea that plays off our wish to believe that a locked door is a permanent barrier and it is incredibly effective.

From this starting point Togawa weaves a complex and often unsettling web of stories that overlap and inform each other. We learn a lot about the various inhabitants and the ways they have been disappointed in life as well as some of the cruelties and crimes they have committed. We are left to question, at points, who has taken the master key, what secret they are trying to reveal and why. Sometimes the answers to these questions are less clear than they seem.

Her characters are each well constructed and given the number we meet I was very impressed by how complex they were. Although the novel is quite short, I was surprised at just how developed they each were. Learning these women’s stories and seeing how they will all fit together was really satisfying.

I found this a really remarkable work and devoured it quickly. This was the first novel I have read by Masako Togawa and I was really impressed both by the depth of characterization as well as the sense of unease she builds in this world. At times I was left curious how some elements could be fully resolved, making the ending all the more striking and powerful. I hope more of Togawa’s work becomes available in translation soon.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Master Key is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States on March 27, 2018.

Update: I selected The Master Key as my Book of the Month for November 2017.