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 Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert R. Rohmer

Originally published in 1978.
English translation first published in 1987.

Far from his work and family in Japan, Professor Daigo is watching an autumn storm from the salon of the Château Chantal. But it is only when the power is cut that he becomes aware of a woman, also Japanese, to whose elegant melancholy he is instantly drawn.

Intoxicated by the darkness and his desire, Daigo finds himself sharing a secret that his mysterious partner can equal with a confidence of her own: they both want another person dead. Before he knows it, Daigo has struck a bargain that could separate him from this bewitching woman for ever. And it is a bargain of which he barely understands the half…


The premise of The Third Lady may seem somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. Both stories feature characters who, upon a chance meeting, happen to share their secret desire to be rid of someone. Both also feature that moment in which the character we have been following comes to realize that the theoretical discussion they had has been brought into reality and have to decide if they will uphold their end of the bargain. While this work may share some significant plot elements, the way Natsuki presents and develops those ideas ends up feeling quite distinct from Highsmith’s, establishing it clearly as its own work.

The most obvious place we can see those differences is in the way in which the characters find themselves forming that murder pact. In The Third Lady, Professor Daigo is spending time in the salon of his hotel in France when the power goes out, leaving him in the darkness. In that moment he becomes aware that a woman, also apparently Japanese, is in the room with him. Excited by the darkness, her perfume, and the anonymity of their encounter, Daigo talks with her and in the course of their conversation she shares her desire to see a woman she holds responsible for the death of her beloved murdered. He in turn expresses his wish that his superior in his university faculty die for his role in covering up how a candy company was responsible for giving children cancer. Their confidences shared, the pair part before power is restored leaving Daigo with strong, sensual memories of the encounter but no knowledge of the woman’s appearance (beyond her pierced ears) or true identity.

When Daigo’s supervisor is killed just a short while later he suspects that what he had assumed was a theoretical discussion was actually an agreement. Desiring to meet the mysterious woman again, he undertakes to carry out the other murder. As he does so, he wonders who among the people in his victim’s life that woman might be and resolves to try and make contact with her after carrying out the crime.

One of the key differences here is in the tone and motivations of the characters in this pivotal moment in the story. Highsmith pitches her encounter as a moment of frustrated fantasy in which the characters talk at cross purposes, one taking that conversation seriously while the other believes (or convinces themselves) that they are not talking seriously. For Natsuki’s characters however it is a highly meaningful moment, inexplicably linked to a moment of intense but unfulfilled sexual desire.

Where Strangers on a Train becomes a novel of suspense, The Third Lady feels more like a meditation on how someone can be affected by that type of desire. Daigo seeks to kill out of the hope that in doing so it will enable him to encounter this woman again and complete that encounter. By the end of the novel the feverish search to discover the woman’s identity has taken on the same degree of importance as the thriller elements of he plot, incorporating elements of the detective story into the novel.

Another difference I perceive between the two books is the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. Highsmith’s Guy Haines is someone the reader is supposed to relate to. We are invited to understand his frustrations at his situation and why he would be so angry that he might have that foolish conversation on the train, even if his victim – while annoying and obviously tormenting him – makes for a bit of a figure of pity.

In contrast the reader is more likely to sympathize with Daigo’s feelings towards Professor Yoshimi whose crime is clearly a terrible one, particularly as it involves children, even if they disapprove of the ends to which he would go to remove him. Yet the more we see of Daigo, the less sympathetic he becomes. This is not just because the thing motivating him is so clearly a base instinct but that we realize he is willing to throw away his home life based on this one short encounter.

It’s at this point that I probably should say I find the initial encounter the least convincing part of the book. I felt Natsuki did establish the role that the unknown played in elevating the sense of excitement in that moment but the physical components to that scene feel a little contrived. It’s not that I don’t understand the effect that such an encounter might have but that the acceleration of the scene felt extremely jarring in the context of the conversation the pair were sharing.

The other key aspect of The Third Lady which distinguishes it is the emphasis it places upon its story elements. While the reader does follow Daigo as he comes to realize what may be expected of him and as he plots how to accomplish his task, the search for the woman’s true identity is given equal weight. Indeed, as we near the end of the novel it becomes nearly its whole focus. While that is appropriate to the themes Natsuki is exploring, this may disappoint those who come to this primarily for its crime elements as those moments are really minimized in the context of the novel overall.

The book’s later chapters also attempt to add a secondary perspective on the crime as we follow the detectives investigating the murders. This technique is often used to good effect in inverted stories to heighten the tension and produce that cat and mouse game but here it feels like an afterthought with little of importance revealed in these chapters. Indeed these chapters only seem to remove focus from Daigo, slowing down his story while adding little to the narrative overall. I felt that the book might have benefited from just inferring the details of the investigation in conversation with Daigo (as is done quite successfully in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon).

The bigger problem though with the book is its final destination: a final chapter that feels simultaneously sensational and yet unsurprising. My issue with the way the story is resolved is not that I found it quite predictable in terms of the information learned or that I found the scene that preceded it to be utterly unbelievable on an behavioral level, but that it is the sort of ending where the more you consider it, the harder it is to make sense of how things turned out and, in particular, the mentality of the characters.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that in the end the characters became like dolls, contorted into uncomfortable roles because of the demands of the moment rather than because it fit what we might expect a person to do in those circumstances. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the middle of the book and had been interested both in its concept and also characters.

The Verdict: Natsuki’s novel offers an intriguing twist on a classic mystery concept but I struggled with its awkward, contorted start and finish.


Second Opinions: John @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one over a decade ago, responding not only to the power of its ending but noting its success as a study of the illusions of love and obsession.


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 (my copy set me back $6) or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1990 paperback edition from Mandarin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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”