Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel

Originally published in 2009 as 贖罪 (Shokuzai).
English translation first published in 2017.

A chilling Japanese psychological thriller and Edgar Award finalist about four women, forever connected by one horrible day in their childhood — fifteen years later, someone wants to make sure they never forget.

When they were girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into leaving their friend Emily with a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurred: Emily was found murdered hours later. 

The four friends were never able to describe the stranger to the police; the killer’s trail went cold. Asako, the bereaved mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will be the ones to pay for her daughter’s murder…

When I read Confessions a little over four months ago I didn’t expect it to stay with me the way it has. That story grabbed me with its second person storytelling approach and its complex exploration of a horrible crime. I didn’t find it a particularly pleasant reading experience – not only because it offers no strand of positivity to cling onto but because the nature of crime crime, the murder of a young child, is always going to be affecting for any parent.

So, why am I putting myself through this again? The answer is because it is rare to find a book that continues to occupy your thoughts for such a long time and I was curious to see if her other translated work could do the same.

At this point a brief warning – I cannot really discuss this book without mentioning the crimes themselves. I will try and avoid being too detailed but there are plenty of triggers here so if in doubt I’d suggest passing over this post.

Penance shares much in common with Confessions. Each chapter is narrated by a different character offering their own perspectives on the same incident and exploring how it fits into the broader story of their lives which diverged afterwards. That incident is shocking and deeply upsetting and while we do get an answer as to who did the crime by the end of the book, the novel is more about how we respond to that sort of an event and how it changes people than it is about working out whodunit. It explores the links between events, some of them incredibly small, and how they can produce devastating, unforseen results. It also looks at how people may seek to deal with their pain and the inadvertant consequences of their choices. Finally, it is about how society as a whole responds to that crime and it, like Confessions, seems to question the nature of a law.

The novel concerns an event that happened when the book’s first four narrators were elementary-aged children, living in a rural town. The group were playing on school grounds during a public holiday when they are approached by a stranger who asks for their help to fix a problem in one of the school buildings. The fifth member of the group, Emily – a recent arrival from Tokyo, is chosen and when she does not return the group eventually investigate to find her dead.

The police question the four girls but they claim that they cannot remember what the stranger looked like causing the case to hit a dead end. Over the years that follow Emily’s mother makes several attempts to question them, hoping that something will jog their memories. Frustrated and forced to return to Tokyo, she tells the group that they must either find Emily’s murderer or do penance for the rest of their lives – a statement that each of them takes to heart and affects them in different but very powerful ways.

Each chapter of the first four chapters of the book explore what became of those girls and how they took those words to heart. All of them are deeply impacted by them and, unable to solve the case, seem to pay a sort of penance in their lives whether they are conscious of it or not.

This sort of an approach could easily feel repetitive but I felt that the author did a good job of repeating information when necessary to a character’s story but finding ways to address those common events more quickly when appropriate. For example the third chapter skips over the event itself entirely, reflecting that the character in question was less affected by the incident itself than the events that surrounded it.

I appreciated that while there are a lot of common characteristics between these four narrators, each has a very distinct voice and personality. While each of their penances are dark and painful, they are quite different and each feels tailored to their role within the group and the experiences they had. It would be fair to say that some of the experiences are unlikely but for Minato tragedy seems to beget more tragedy and so I could easily accept that as part of the view espoused by the author. Indeed I think it is rather the point of the novel that we are changed by our experiences and react to new ones through the prism of our previous ones.

The one story that I think feels a little out of place is the third one which is the chapter titled ‘The Bear Siblings‘. The penance in that chapter certainly is related to the main crime and yet I think you could argue that the other children’s experiences wouldn’t have happened were it not for Emily’s murder. I am not so sure that can be said of what she goes through and I am not sure I agree with Emily mother’s thoughts on those events when they are shared towards the end of the novel.

One of the criticisms I have seen in reviews of this book suggests that the events in the book are unrealistic or rely on coincidence. I have hinted above that I do not think that is true of the four individual narratives but I do think there is an element of coincidence involved in the explanation of what happened to Emily. To me that did not weaken the story however but fit with its theme that each action can have unintended effects – the idea that little ripples can eventually form a wave. I would add that while the things that happened to characters were sometimes fantastic, the characters’ responses to them always felt credible to me.

If I had a problem with these four accounts it was that I occasionally found that the economical prose made some parts of the stories a little challenging to follow, particularly in the chapters titled ‘An Unscheduled PTA Meeting’ and ‘The Bear Siblings’. At points I had to reread passages for clarity to be sure I knew which character was being discussed. In each instance it was clear when looking at sections carefully and I think it does reflect an idea that the book uses in several places that those characters are drawing parallels with their other experiences.

The explanation for the original crime struck me as powerful and, as with Confessions, I appreciated the thoughtful exploration of that idea of how choices have consequences. That being said, I can only reiterate that this is a deeply upsetting book. I think it needs to be in order to prompt the necessary response from the reader and from the characters but that does not make it comfortable to experience. In particular, be warned that in addition to being murdered, the child was also raped by her attacker and that while we do not experience that moment from her perspective, the state of her body afterwards is described.

While there is a question of who murdered Emily and why, I should stress that this isn’t a puzzle that the reader can really solve. They will not have enough information until right before the end to truly understand the crime, though they may be able to infer some clues that will be used to identify them at the end. I certainly wouldn’t suggest reading it for that purpose in any case.

Really this book, like Confessions, is about the themes and issues it chooses to address. It not only tells a compelling story of a truly horrific crime, it also offers some interesting reflections on life in the Japanese countryside as opposed to the cities and on the nature of guilt and how we respond to it, all told in a mix of second person voices which pull the reader closer into the tale.

It is not, I think, quite so punchy as Confessions. That novel tied its characters together even more closely, creating a stronger sense of cause and effect in their actions, and the epistolary format here is not quite as arresting as the lecture given at the start of that other novel. Still, I found it a dark and compelling book that will no doubt stay with me for some time, just as the other did.

The Verdict: A really dark and powerful read that is just as devastating as the author’s debut work, Confessions.

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

Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Originally published as Misshitsu No Kagi Kashimasu in 2002
Ikagawa City Series #1

Ryuhei, a would-be film director, has just been dumped by his girl friend and his drunken threats to kill her have made him the prime suspect, as she has just been murdered. 

His alibi is that he was watching a film in his friend’s home movie theatre at the time. Unfortunately, his friend has also been stabbed to death in his bathroom, with the door to the apartment locked with a door chain. 

Worse still, Ryuhei was the only other person in the apartment at the time, and passed out until the following morning after he discovered his friend’s body. Fearing that the police will not believe him, because the door chain can only be locked from the inside, he panics and runs away. Not a good idea. 

Lending the Key to the Locked Room is an example of the shin honkaku ha (New Orthodox school) of Japanese mystery fiction. Works in this style, which began in the 1980s, hark back to the idea and rules of the fair play puzzle mystery practised by the likes of S. S. van Dine and Ellery Queen. Such works can be regarded as a game or contest of wits where the author promises to give the reader all the clues they need to be able to solve the mystery before the detective if they have the imagination to do so.

This was Tokuya Higashigawa’s first novel and it presents us with a complicated situation in which a man finds himself linked to two murders in bizarre circumstances.

Ryūhei joined the film program at Ikagawa University but as he nears graduation he decides that wants a guaranteed job and so he reaches out to a friend, Kōsaku Moro, who workss at a small film company. The work won’t be lucrative or glamorous but he is glad of the security. His girlfriend is appalled as she does not see her future in Ikegawa and dumps him. A few days later he gets heavily drunk and starts a bar fight screaming his girlfriend’s name and saying he will kill her. This will not look good for Ryūhei…

Ryūhei is invited over to Kōsaku’s home to watch a movie together on his home theater system. After the movie finishes Kōsaku offers to get snacks and drinks, leaving him alone in the house while he runs to the store. When he returns he tells him that he saw a commotion and that he had heard that someone had died from falling from a building which turns out to be the one where Ryūhei’s ex-girlfriend lives. We will later learn that she was murdered.

His friend leaves him alone to take a shower. When he doesn’t emerge after a long period, Ryūhei investigates to find his friend dead of a knife wound. He finds that the door to the apartment had been chained and that no one could have gained access or left through any of the windows. It makes for an intriguing scenario, built around a very solid locked room problem. Not only was he present at one murder in a location that no one else could gain access to, there are clear links between the two crimes such as the weapon used. Given that we have followed Ryūhei throughout the events of that evening we can be confident that he is not responsible for either murder yet it clearly looks bad for him.

I felt pretty confident that I had the answers quite early in the investigation but I quickly realized that the solution could not be quite as simple as I was thinking. Even when an idea appeared that it might fit the facts, some point would be brought up that would make me realize that my ideas would not work. While I would work out a few of the key points by the end of the novel, I have to say I didn’t get close to the details of the actual solution.

The best part of that solution relates to the sequence of events that evening. Towards the end of the novel we are given a detailed, step-by-step explanation which does a superb job of laying out exactly why things happened the way they did. The mechanics of the killer’s plan struck me as quite clever and one aspect of it in particular stood out as quite imaginative and original. I enjoyed it as much for the manner it is revealed by piecing ideas together as the audacity of the concept itself.

I did have an issue with the solution which relates to motive. Being as vague as I can be, I feel that the killer’s motive is rather weak. While I accept that some signs of it are clearer once you know what it is, I am not sure that I think it would push someone to act in the way they do and so I did find that reasoning to be a little unconvincing. I will say though that it has grown on me as I have reflected and thought of the indications in the story that I have missed. There are a few points in that solution that struck me as strange when I first read them but as I thought back through the story I could see the clues that could have led me there.

Though I am a little reluctant to label this as a comic detective story, in part because the humor is not frequent enough to feel like the purpose or focus of the story, Higashigawa does approach telling his story in a rather light-hearted fashion. His narration is peppered with little comments that acknowledge that we are reading a detective story, reflecting on the expected structures and plot developments of such works. They prompted more smiles than laughter for me but I still appreciated their inclusion and felt it fit well with the general craziness of the story’s premise.

Overall, I found Lending the Key to the Locked Room to be an entertaining read. The puzzle has some really clever features and I enjoyed the occasional meta asides in the narration which I found amusing and which gave the piece a rather unique style. I would certainly be willing to read more from this series should others become available.

The Verdict: An excellent example of a lightly comic puzzle mystery with some clever plotting.

Further Reading

This release does not have either an introduction or endnotes but the translator, Ho-Ling Wong, recently blogged about the release and had previously offered their thoughts on the book. Both are worth reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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