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.

Slow Fuse by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Prentis

Originally published in 1976 as 深い失速 (Japanese)
English translation first published in 1995

A promising young psychiatrist, Dr. Uemura, is unwillingly plunged into a seedy, film noir world of seduction, obsession, and revenge after a young patient confesses to a brutal murder. Yet his world does not truly spin out of control until he discovers that the “victim” is very much alive.

Long-term readers of this blog may remember that I have previously championed several reprints of Masako Togawa’s thrillers that were part of the Pushkin Vertigo range. For a long time I had hoped that the remaining two English translations (Slow Fuse and A Kiss of Fire) would follow but as it seems that they will not be published any time soon I decided to go ahead and seek out second-hand copies instead.

The book’s protagonist in Slow Fuse is Dr. Uemura, a psychiatrist who has been assigned to the case of Akio Tanno. The novel begins with him calling on Mrs Owada at her apartment concerning a confession that his patient has written in which he claims to have raped and then murdered her with ‘a long weapon’.

It quickly becomes clear that not only is Mrs Owada alive, she also disputes several parts of Akio Tanno’s account. While Uemura is satisfied that the report need not be passed on to the police, he is confused by several other factors of the case and that confusion only grows as he investigates further.

The remainder of the book follows Uemura as he follows up on different threads of the account and tries to make sense of what Tanno actually did. The earliest chapters take a primarily psychological approach, applying a sort of Freudian filter to aspects of the statement, but there is a detective story running underneath that narrative.

The construction of that detective story is quite neat and I was impressed with how well the story clung together when I got to the conclusion. The answers when they come are clear, easy to understand and fairly clued.

As much as I may celebrate the plot’s construction, I do need to say that some aspects of the plot and the themes that are discussed which feel quite dated. For instance, Uemura’s inability to retain a professional distance from the women he interacts with in this case (including a female subordinate in his office) is never really treated as a serious character flaw.

Perhaps the biggest problem though is a sequence in which a female nurse describes how she tried to test to see if the patient was a rapist. That moment just didn’t sit well with me and struck me as profoundly uncomfortable and misguided. I certainly struggled to imagine a real person choosing to make that decision.

That moment struck me as so jarring and incredible that it really pulled me out of the story. On a similar note, the way that almost every single interaction with a female for Dr. Uemura takes on a sexual dimension feels simultaneously both laughable and uncomfortable.

Part of the reason I had held off on tracking down copies of the two out-of-print translations of Togawa’s novels was that I had hoped that at some point they might join The Master Key and The Lady Killer as part of the Pushkin Vertigo range. Having finally read Slow Fuse I think I can understand why it has not joined those two titles.

Where The Master Key and The Lady Killer both feel like multilayered, complex explorations of Japanese society and the relationships between men and women, Slow Fuse feels superficial and often a little juvenile. Meanwhile the psychosexual thriller style feels aged and rooted in a form of sexual politics and gender relations that is very much of the period in which it was originally written. Those other two novels feel relevant today in spite of their strong sense of time and place – this novel, which is far less culturally specific, oddly cannot be separated from that moment.

I still plan on reading A Kiss of Fire – I did just purchase an affordable second-hand copy – but my expectations will probably be much lower now.

The Verdict: I loved the initial plot hook of the false confession and the detective story that lies beneath this novel. Unfortunately the psychological thriller elements feel dated and, at times, cringeworthy.

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

Originally Published 1978

A newspaper receives a letter from a man claiming to have been murdered–it’s impossible but the truth is not so simple; five strangers who share the same initials are invited to spend the night in a luxury hotel but one of them is a murderer.

The 12 stories in this book will lead you through dramatic twists and unexpected turns. The legendary Ellery Queen selected these stories by award-winning Japanese authors from among many thousands published in postwar Japan. Each story features an unusual crime and a complex set of clues investigated by a diverse and colorful cast of characters that includes a calculating inspector, a tenacious journalist, and a determined scientist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen, edited by Frederic Dannay”

The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

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 Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

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.