Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in.
His mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the grisly murder of an American businessman. When Takamatsu disappears, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi. They scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, corporate offices and industrial wastelands to find Takamatsu, and a woman driven to murder who seems to have it all.
Being a huge fan of Japanese crime fiction I admit to being particularly intrigued by THE LAST TRAIN. Set in Tokyo the viewpoint of this novel, written by an ex-pat American professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University who has now lived in that city for twenty years, was a large part of this appeal.
Whatever elements there are that feed into THE LAST TRAIN, they have combined to create a fascinating police procedural / serial killer with a reason novel interwoven with aspects of Japanese tradition and culture. Things get underway pretty quickly, when we're introduced to a victim being led away from a bar district, absolutely hammered drunk, only to have him fall in front of an underground train. Obviously the first part of the investigation is to decide if this American man was an extreme form of suicide or a murder. Enter our detective hero - Detective Hiroshi Shimizu, a man who remembers fondly his time studying in America. Filled with regret over the loss of his foreign girlfriend, he is pulled into a murder investigation in a most unexpected manner. Shimizu is a white collar crime investigator - much more at home in the world of financial shenanigans and spreadsheets, it's via his mentor, Takamatsu that he finds himself included in a murder investigation that rapidly becomes a serial killer hunt. When his Takamatsu goes missing Shimizu teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi to track down that most unusual of things - a female serial killer.
The outsider's viewpoint really works well in the way that Tokyo life is observed and described. There's lots of little gems of information imparted as the action proceeds - from the food / the night life / the way that the nightclub and hostess world works, and there's great humour. It was impossible not to laugh out loud at sumo-sized thugs setting off overweight alarms in lifts, and an elderly man prepared to use machinery lathes as a lethal weapon if necessary.
Interestingly, even though it's an outsider viewpoint, it has an intrinsically Japanese feel to the novel - there's much to learn about the society, there's much to learn about the people, and there's much to admire in creating a female serial killer who is believable, and, more importantly sympathetic understandable.
Even with a little bit of heavy lifting towards the end dragging everything into line, THE LAST TRAIN is a really good novel for fans of crime fiction in general, and Asian crime in particular.
Review - THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS, Soji Shimada
Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must in one week solve a mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years. Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, the supreme woman? With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion, pieced together like a great stage tragedy, challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain.
Honkaku is a subgenre of Japanese Crime Fiction that came into being sometime in the early 1920's. The original definition was "a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning". The term was coined to clearly differentiate Honkaku mystery fiction from other subgenres and it was used for both local and Western writers, although a distinct Japanese form became increasingly common in the 1950's.
Adding depth to long tradition, the author of THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS, Soji Shimada has written over 100 mystery novels.
Knowing the background to the form isn't required to understand the structure of this novel, although it does help to realise that it is informed by such a rich tradition. Written in a number of parts or acts, THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS firstly introduces the reader to a bizarre prologue - a note written in the mid 1930's by artist Umezawa outlining detailed plans and justifications for the murder of six of his daughters and nieces to create the figure of a supreme goddess Azoth. Disturbing and frankly very odd, the voice in this section is manic.
In the next part, 40 years on from the date of the note, the reader discovers that the six daughters referred to in the plan were indeed murdered, mutilated exactly as outlined. Which would have been a straight-forward case had one other daughter not predeceased her relatives, and Umezawa himself died before the girls. This is revealed as Kazumi Ishioka explains the background of the mystery that has baffled Japan since it occurred to his friend and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai. There investigation occurs in two parts from here - and along the way Mitarai accepts a threat / challenge which means that he must not only solve the puzzle, but do it to a schedule. To do that Mitarai and Ishioka travel through Japan, following where the clues lead them.
Those clues are laid out in a very traditional manner allowing the reader to discover them as the main detecting characters do. In an interesting touch the point at which the detective has solved the puzzle, the story switches to a note from the author letting the reader know that they now have everything needed as well. And it is actually solvable if you really pay attention, and take a logical and considered approach (this reader kind of worked out who, but admits it was more by good luck than good management, mathematical formula of any kind being the ultimate mystery after all).
Because the point of this style of novel is to present a puzzle, there's not necessarily a lot of character development alongside that, although the final resolution is markedly sad and moving. The detecting pair's travels around Japan do, however, give it a strong sense of place as well as many insights into the culture and customs of the country. The centrality of the Zodiac to the mystery does mean that some of the patterns - such as the dates of birth of the victims, the relationship of them to the structure of the Supreme Goddess to be built, and the layout of the closed room mystery in the murder of Umezawa are made more fathomable by the insertion of diagrams.
Puzzle upon puzzle THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS is intricate and utterly fascinating, as an example of Honkaku and the culture from which it sprang, as well as providing sufficient puzzles to be solved to keep a reader happily occupied (and slightly confused) right to the last page.
Review - SALARYMAN UNBOUND, Ezra Kyrill Erker
Iwasaki Shiro, a 46 year old salaryman in Tokyo is having a midlife crisis. Unexceptional in his IT job, he works in the shadow of his boss’s charisma. His children are embarrassed by his mediocrity and his wife rarely thinks of him as an individual. He has nothing to show for decades of conformity and doing the right thing.
Iwasaki Shiro is a hard-working, Japanese family man. With a controlling wife, disrespectful children, and a murder fantasy. Most of what Shiro does is somehow never quite right. Whether it's his suggestion for changes at work that is rapidly turning out to be a disaster in the making, or his initial attempts to become a murderer. There's a bit of thought, a lot of fantasy and an inability to actually achieve much. Except that whilst planning a killing, somehow he becomes more confident, and actually sets some rules for the family.
For somebody as ineffectual as Shiro, he's a fascinating character. One of those that readers might find themselves barracking for, despite his dreadful intentions. He's obviously one of life's lost causes, although it's not until the very end of the book that the reader becomes aware of how lost.
SALARYMAN UNBOUND gives the reader a strong sense of connection to an anti-hero, as well as palpable sense of Japan. The way that the culture, expectations and society place such pressure on people to conform, and the level of discomfort that creates in somebody who really seems like an ordinary person, backed into a difficult situation. Granted, the idea that murdering somebody ... anybody, as the solution to that pressure seems extreme, but it kind of fits with this personality and the situation he's in.
Added to that sense of place, pressure and a fascinating anti-hero, is the plot which seems to roll along, in a direction that's not obvious. Despite this lack of an obvious direction, there is a sense of pace, and tension that builds, until the final twist. SALARYMAN UNBOUND delivers that twist in the same sort of matter-of-fact manner as it sets up the original idea of murder as a way of empowering a sad man. Whilst that final twist might not come as a huge surprise to some readers, it's poignant, moving in way. You can't help but feel that Shiro has never had a break in his life, but you really can't decide if that's his fault, or he's just one of lifes natural victims.
Review - MALICE by Keigo Higashino
Acclaimed bestselling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is brutally murdered in his home on the night before he's planning to leave Japan and relocate to Vancouver. His body is found in his office, in a locked room, within his locked house, by his wife and his best friend, both of whom have rock solid alibis. Or so it seems. Police Detective Kyochiro Kaga recognizes Hidaka's best friend from years ago when they were both teachers. Kaga went on to join the police force while Nonoguchi became a full-time writer, though with not nearly the success of his friend Hidaka.
Japanese author Keigo Higashino has produced a classically-styled, some might say old fashioned, detective novel in Malice. While the rest of the world is going for serial killer thrillers and flawed antiheros, Higashino has produced a novel that harks back to the detective work of an earlier age. This is not a criticism. Malice is still a taut, twisting match of wits between detective and killer.
Kunihiko Hinada, a famous novelist, and his new wife are preparing to move to Canada. Nonoguchi, one of his oldest friends, comes to visit him on the day before they are due to leave. During the visit he learns that Hinada has made some enemies - a neighbour and the sister of one of their schoolmates who was the subject of one of his recent novels. Later that night Nonoguchi and Hinada's wife find Hinada dead, killed in his office, the door locked and all the lights off. The first part of the novel is an account of that day written by Nonoguchi, himself an aspiring novelist.
The murder case is taken by Inspector Kaga, coincidentally also an old teaching colleague of Nonoguchi. On reading Nonoguchi's statement Kaga begins to have doubts about the events. He is intrigued by the locked room mystery and immediately begins to dig deeper. The rest of the novel see-saws between Kaga's investigation and Nonoguchi's shifting narration. Each switch in narrator provides a different view of the events leading up to the night of the murder and the characters involved.
In some interesting ways Malice is a historical crime novel. Set way back in 1996, the set-up partially relies on the specific technology of the time - fax machines, word processors and basic mobile phones – to drive the plot. But it really focuses on that most basic of technologies, writing. The victim is a novelist, Nonoguchi is also a writer (and is writing some of the narrative), and the investigation focuses on how they write and what they write about. Higanshino examines the nature of the publishing industry, how some books become bestsellers and what effect that has on the author.
Novels of this type condition the reader to question the narrative. Rather than a slow build-up of clues, each chapter falsifies the assumptions of the previous chapter. In this type of narrative, part of the pleasure comes in the expectation of the next twist, with the reader trying to work out how many different ways the same set of events can be viewed and how their perceptions of character can be manipulated. Even the chapter names of Malice highlight this build up, with the final chapter title being 'Truth'.
Malice is a carefully constructed, character-focussed whodunit and then whydunit, but it is more than just a set of tricky reverses. Higashino uses his scenario and characters to explore the concept of “malice”, delving into issues of bullying, the way the media is used to manipulate perception and the corrosive nature of fame. This makes Malice the complete package – a crime novel that has both a twisting narrative and fascinating themes.
THE SLEEPING DRAGON - Miyuki Miyabe
A fierce typhoon strikes Tokyo one night, flooding the city streets. Someone has unlawfully removed a manhole cover, and a little boy out searching for a lost pet goes missing, possibly drowned in the sewers. Is it murder or accidental? These events bring together a struggling journalist named Kosaka, who is grappling with the ghosts of his past, and two young men who may or may not have psychic powers. The three form an unwilling team not only to search for the lost boy, but also to solve a second mystery involving Kosaka's former fiance.
On the cover of THE SLEEPING DRAGON, Miyuki Miyabe is noted as Japan's Number 1 bestselling Mystery Writer, known for her ability to write strong suspense novels. Which made this particular book an interesting prospect, even allowing for the inclusion of an ESP sub-thread which isn't often something I'm particularly comfortable with.
But I am very comfortable with something that has a strong sense of place, and a strong sense of the culture that it comes from. Even allowing for the novel being translated, there remained something quintessentially Japanese about this book. Considered, subdued even, the story of THE SLEEPING DRAGON is told in a sparse, careful and thoughtful manner, particularly given the central premise of the book - whether or not a careless or even reckless act is murder, whether or not you know who did it.
The book is telling a complicated story. The disappearance of a little boy, the identification of who moved the manhole cover, their reactions and everyone's belief about culpability. The pairing of an older, life-worn journalist Kosaka, and the young psychic teenager Shinji. The relationship between Shinji and Naoya, and Naoya's struggle with his own psychic ability. Intertwined friendships, the past returning to affect the present, love lost, good and bad new relationships, and the whole catastrophe.
Despite the complications of the various sub-threads throughout the book, there is a stately progression, more than a thriller style ride. The whole book does not, however, concentrate on the "mystery" or the loss of the little boy. There are other aspects to the people within the story that frequently take centre stage. Because of that, this is not a "traditional" mystery in which a crime is committed, an investigation undertaken, and a resolution arrived at. This is a book which resolves a mystery, and looks deep into the consequences of that mystery, and to the fall out in the lives of the people involved. Within this context, the ESP sub-thread is really more about the battle that somebody with a different "gift" in life has in dealing with the consequences of that gift.
I doubt very strongly that this would be a book that dedicated fast paced thriller fans are going to find exactly their cup of tea. I suspect that fans of the crime straight through to resolution style of mystery fiction may also find it a little disappointing, but I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed THE SLEEPING DRAGON. I found the style of storytelling very engaging, the intricacies of the lives that the book looked at absorbing, the moral dilemmas raised, addressed or never resolved realistic and quite challenging. The style of the book felt Japanese to me, but the characters within the story, and the battles that they fought, essentially very human and realistic.
VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
It's January 6, 2002. The body of Yoshino, a female insurance saleswoman, is found at Mitsue Pass, an eery inland spot in the southernmost region of Japan, rumoured to be home to ghosts. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is soon arrested by the Nagasaki police on suspicion of strangling the victim.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to read VILLAIN, although the Japan Book News quote on the back of the book "... lays out a panorama of modern Japanese society, a patchwork composed of people of various classes and occupations..." really appealed. And the book most definitely did not disappoint.
Intricate, telling, tightly woven, tense and yet somehow languid and flowing, VILLAIN was an outstanding read. Not just because of the way that the identity of the murderer slowly creeps up on you, but also because of the way the various voices of the characters grab the reader and hold your attention. I understand from a chat with a friend of mine that the original Japanese version may have used particular dialects or very individual voices for each of the characters that clearly transmits their origins / position in society. That aspect isn't as obvious in the English version, but there are still enough elements in the style to make you realise there are differences.
VILLAIN is not a whodunnit nor is it a book about justice, revenge or resolution. It's more about the life choices that can quickly turn one person into a victim and another into a murderer. It's also a rather telling look at a lot of aspects of Japanese society - pressure on the young to conform, and how so many of those societal "norms" result in a quiet sort of despair - a longing for connection. It also shows how the stratas of society impact that. There are aspects of the life of the elderly which are held up to scrutiny as well - ultimately this is not a book which pulls much in the way of punches as it looks at the lives of most of the characters.
Whilst this book is definitely a thriller, it's a slow burning, dark and quite moving. The action is pushed along in a series of chapters told in the different voices of the characters, frequently in differing timeframes as the reader is taken backwards and forwards before the death of Yoshino and after. Yoshino, a young woman strangely lost somewhere between her daytime job as an insurance saleswoman and her night-time activities which veer closely towards a sort of casual prostitution, but always with this clanging sense of a search for love, acceptance, connection. Her background of loving, albeit marginalised parents, is contrasted strongly by that of the man she meets via an on-line dating service. Yuichi is a young man with much to resent in his life. Dumped by his mother into the care of his grandparents as a very young child, he now works in construction and struggles with the role of support to those now ailing grandparents. Yuichi's expression of individuality is all in his car, his love life as bleak and opportunistic as Yoshino. These two somehow seem to be destined, in other ways you can feel the tension as both of them struggle against the reality of their likely fates versus their ultimate desires.
An overwhelming reading experience that is really going to appeal to readers who like thoughtful, discomforting and quite confrontational reading, VILLAIN is one of those books that will stay with me.
The corpse of an unknown man is discovered under the rails of a train in a Tokyo station, and Inspector Imanishi is assigned to the case. Inspector Imanishi is a wonderfully Japanese man ... Haiku poet, gardener and the most dogged homicide detective on the Tokyo police force.
INSPECTOR IMANISHI INVESTIGATES is the first Japanese written crime / mystery book that I can remember reading for quite some time, and it must have worked as I've been tracking down other examples and other authors to try.
When an unidentified (and it soon appears) difficult to identify man is found under the rails of a Tokyo Station early one morning, he's been strangled and dumped on the rails - seemingly in an attempt to take away any further chance of identifying him when the first train of the morning ran over the corpse.
I'll admit it - I found Inspector Imanishi incredibly engaging. The style of language in the book is slightly formal - I guess partly because of the publication date (1961 for the Japanese version) and partly because it is Japanese - and they seem to be a considerably more formal people than what I'm used to. Rather than provide any form of dating for the book, it simply placed it formally in another culture - a culture considerably different from ours. There's the lovely ritual of exchanging name cards, there is the formal methods of addressing each other, there is even a formal courtesy to Imanishi's relationship with his wife which just appealed immensely.
The investigation itself proceeds very very slowly - this is 1967 after all and inquiries are frequently done in writing, in formal letters. Movement around the country is done by train, some inquiries are hampered by the destruction of records at the end of the Second World War. Sure there are some technological aspects - maybe these were glimpses forward to the technological giant that Japan has since become - but in some ways the mystery, while central to the plot, was less interesting than the characterisations, the Inspector, the food (I was consistently craving food throughout this book) and the tremendous sense of place.