Death from the Clouds by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Gavin Frew

Originally published in 1988 as 雲から贈る死
English translation first published in 1991

“I will send them all death from on top of the clouds.”

In a dream, Toko hears her Uncle Okito utter this deadly threat. Now the dream appears to be coming true. The first is Uncle Ryuta, president of the family electronics corporation – dead in an inexplicable plane crash. Next is Yaeko, Uncle Ryuta’s mistress – poisoned. Who is next? Uncle Koji, in line for company president? Or Toko’s own beloved father?

The police suspect the author of these brilliant crimes to be Uncle Okito, the genius brother who had made the family fortunes. But Okito is dead, an apparent suicide more than a month before.

Toko has her own idea of where the key to the mystery lies – and sets about finding it. Meanwhile, the chain of tragedy continues its inexorable, perhaps endless course…


To the best of my knowledge there were six English language translations of mysteries by ‘Japan’s Bestselling Mystery Writer’ Shizuko Natsuki published in the late 80s and early 90s. A few months ago I happened upon a set of them and snapped them up, curious to see how they would compare with Murder at Mt. Fuji – my first encounter with her work. A couple of months ago I shared my thoughts on The Third Lady, a trading murders story which caught my attention with its obvious parallels to Strangers on a Train.

Of the novels that remained the one that appealed most to me was Death From The Clouds. I think what intrigued me was its structure in which a group of executives from one of the world’s leading electronics corporations are killed one by one. Where the blurb for The Third Lady put me in mind of Highsmith, this made me think of Christie. Not so much the apparently random killings of The ABC Murders but the more purposeful, structured approach of And Then There Were None in which there is clearly meant to be an order and a purpose, even if it seems impossible to imagine at the start of the novel.

The novel begins a few months after the death of Okito, a brilliant engineer who had revolutionized the microcomputer over a decade earlier, kickstarting the growth of the Ruco corporation in the early seventies to make it one of the leaders in its industry, with several family members becoming senior executives. The precise circumstances of Okito’s death are a little shadowy – his older brother Ryuta describes them as ‘miserable’ – and the family is only just emerging from a period of mourning.

Ryuta is keen to get back to his hobby of piloting his private plane and decides to take a flight. He calls his niece Toko who tries to dissuade him from flying, sharing that she had a dream in which she imagined Okito on top of stormy clouds. Ryuta decides to fly anyway but the plane’s engines stutter and fail, causing a fatal crash. It’s a tragic death but it turns out to be the first of several with other members of the family, all connected with the company, each dying in turn.

There are several aspects of this setup that appealed to me. The first was the element of premonition. Toko’s vision of her dead uncle vowing vengeance on his family is a striking one, particularly as described. It certainly helps to create a sense of dread and an atmosphere that hangs over those early chapters as we wonder just what he may have intended and also why Toko dreamed of him at all. Is that vision her imagination at work or is it based on something she subconsciously observed? It’s a great question that unfortunately falls out of focus in the later chapters of the book but which initially helped to hook me into the story.

Another is the way Natsuki slowly releases information to the reader, hinting to us about resentments and characters’ relationships long before we know the details of them. We know, for instance, that there was some resentment between Okito and his family but it takes some chapters before we know exactly what that was. I enjoyed learning about these characters’ histories and that of the company they built and I appreciated that our field of potential killers is kept quite wide until close to the end.

The most obvious killer would be Okito himself. He not only had by far the strongest motive to kill, he was also one of the few people with the requisite skills and knowledge to carry out those plans. The problem with that theory however is that he also has the strongest alibi. He is dead.

The other thing I really appreciate about the setup here is that there is some ambiguity about whether deaths are natural accidents or the result of foul play. The first few murders are able to be committed without anyone knowing that a serial killer is at work meaning that the reader is never forced to accept characters behaving in an unrealistic way, staying in a situation where they are obviously in danger. This, of course, ends up helping with the subsequent murders as no one is ever really on their guard until it is too late to do anything about it.

Where I think the problems with this book lie is in understanding the relationships between what is a pretty large cast of characters. This is one of those novels that I think could have really done with a family tree and chart showing their roles within the corporation as I found myself losing track of how those characters were connected to one another. Similarly a few of the characters feel barely sketched, making several of the victims feel more like names on a death roll than fully-dimensional, memorable characters.

That extends a little to the police as well when they are introduced later in the novel. These characters do not make much of an impression here with the author relying on the reader remembering them from Murder at Mt. Fuji. If it wasn’t for some direct references to their involvement in that case I don’t think I would have noticed that they were recurring and although it is just over a year since I read that novel, I have to say I have no memory of them at all (perhaps not a surprise as I characterized that investigation as ‘rushed and anticlimactic’ in my post). They gave me little reason to remember them from this one either.

Fortunately I think that the events of this novel are more interesting than that one, helping to make up for some deficiencies in the characterization and the investigation. For example, several of the deaths occur in quite striking ways. This includes an example of a poison used that I don’t think I can recall seeing used in a mystery novel before (even if it is curiously translated with a name that isn’t its standard English language spelling). I also really appreciated the thoughtful use of misdirection at a few points which I think make the case a little more complex and interesting.

In spite of that however, when it comes time for the actual solution to be revealed I found it a little underwhelming. As is often the case with talking about a novel’s ending, it’s tricky to lay out precisely why it didn’t entirely satisfy without getting into the realm of spoilers either directly or by implication. I think my frustrations lay in the idea that while each aspect of the solution is explained, I felt disappointed by the way that some elements are not as tightly incorporated into that solution as I had hoped.

Still, in spite of that I have to say I enjoyed my experience with this novel overall and would say it was the most intriguing of the three Natsuki novels I’ve read to this point. It’s a little uneven at points, sure, but there are some interesting ideas here, even if they don’t come together quite as neatly as I would have liked.

The Verdict: This novel offers some striking and unusual murder methods and I enjoyed the corporate politics elements of the story, even if it didn’t entirely come together for me with its solution.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1991 Ballantine Books edition.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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).