Tag Archives: Japanese crime fiction

The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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The Master Key: Masako Togawa

“Fate! It can stab you in the back any time, upsetting the most carefully thought out activities. Fate doesn’t care what the upshot is.”

The Master Key from Japanese author Masako Togawa is another entry in the Pushkin Vertigo line. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read several books from this series, and that I’m a huge fan of the Frédéric Dard titles.

The Master Key is set in the bleak, dark K Apartments for Young Ladies. At one time, the rules and regulations regarding occupants and visitors were strict. Men were not allowed to stay overnight, and of course, all the occupants were female. The over 100 occupants are no longer “young ladies” but longtime tenants who are “old maids.” The apartment building is now rundown, and depressing, and its “one hundred and fifty rooms connected by dark corridors into which the sunshine never penetrates,” are representative of the lives of the residents. “The long years have wreaked havoc on both the building and its inhabitants.”  The lives of these women, who were once vibrant and successful, are sad and depressing, and there’s a horrible irony to the name of the building, along with the idea that the residents were once segregated from men in order for their virtue to remain intact.

Here are some of the residents:

Katsuko Tojo, one of the receptionists who has limited mobility.

Noriko Ishiyama, a former art teacher, a mad hoarder who roams the halls at night seeking fishbones to chew

Suwa Yatabe, a violinist whose career was cut short by the mysterious paralysis of a finger

Professor Toyoko Munekata who is devoting herself to completing her husband’s manuscripts.

The building is about to be moved, and this is an event that causes tremendous anxiety and upheaval in the lives of some of its residents. Plus the master key, which opens all 150 rooms is missing, and some of the residents harbour secrets that they are desperate to protect. …

I liked The Master Key, but unfortunately I guessed the central twist early on, so that took the fizz out of the novel’s Big Reveal. The creepy atmosphere of the building and its mostly forgotten residents is well created and the detailed lives of the residents are incredibly sad.

I’d rank it below the Dard novels, Boileau and Narcejac’s Vertigo & She Who Was No More, and Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, but above Resurrection Bay, and the Augusto de Angelis novels. So in other words, somewhere in the middle. But still, it’s wonderful to read some newly translated Japanese crime fiction, and Pushkin Vertigo has another Togawa title for publication: The Lady Killer

Review Copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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Malice: Keigo Higashino

“It comes down to character.”

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of crime book; I’ve said that many times, but then I read the Japanese crime novel, Malice from Keigo Higashino with contains a plot that managed to do something entirely different from the typical procedural. Malice, with its emphasis not on the perpetrator (we know who committed the crime around the first third of the novel,) but on the psychology of motive is a fascinating read as the detective in charge of the case refuses to take the case’s solution at face value.

So here’s the plot: best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is murdered in his home the night before he leaves for Vancouver with his wife of one month, Rie. Everything was packed and ready for the move, but Hidaka, alone at the house, was working on a serialized novel. Hidaka was found dead inside his locked office inside his locked house. Yet someone entered the home, bashed Hidaka over the head with a paperweight and then strangled him with a telephone cord. Both Hidaka’s wife and his best friend, a writer of children’s stories, Osamu Nonoguchi have alibis for the time of Hidaka’s death. On the day of Hidaka’s murder, he was visited by a young woman, Miyako Fujio, who was trying to persuade Hidaka to rewrite his novel, Forbidden Hunting Grounds as it portrayed the life of her brother (stabbed by a prostitute).  Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations. ….

malice

Malice is told, mainly, through the two voices of Osamu and Detective Kaga. The two men were teachers at the same school together, briefly, but Kaga gave up teaching to become a police detective while Osamu eventually became a full time writer. Osamu, for his own purpose, has written down accounts of the crime including the last time he saw Hidaka. Osamu visited Hidaka on the day of his death as did Miyako Fujio, so Detective Kaga requests Osamu’s accounts in order to help him piece together the crime.

With a couple of slips made by the killer, it doesn’t take too long for Kaga to solve the crime, and while he’s pressured to close the case, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. A mental duel begins to take place between the detective and the perp–a lazier detective would walk away, but Kaga isn’t satisfied with the solution to the crime. Determined to discover the truth, Kaga keeps digging. Eventually he uncovers a simmering resentment, so evil, it’s staggering in its ambition.

Malice was another foray into Japanese crime, and it was an intense, ingenious, deeply psychological read which showed this reader that the police procedural can be full of unpredictable twists and turns. The witness statements and the detective’s speech at the end of the book were a little rough, but apart from that, Malice is highly recommended. The plot interested me, in particular, because it argues that the victim has no one to speak for them.

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A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

In Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, middle-aged Tsuneo Asai is a senior civil servant, dedicated to his job, a man who loves his second wife, the much younger but sickly Eiko. We don’t know what happened to Asai’s first wife who died early in the marriage, and it would seem that Asai is fated to be a widower when, on  a business trip, he receives the news that Eiko has died suddenly of a heart attack.

Asai knew that Eiko, his wife for seven years, had heart problems; she’d had a heart attack two years earlier, and that’s the reason Eiko gave her husband for no longer having sex. She was afraid that sex would bring on an early death, and so Eiko filled her days with a series of hobbies: studying traditional Japanese ballads, playing the shamisen, Japanese style painting–all abandoned until she found Haiku–an “infatuation” which “stuck.” She joined a haiku group, and Asai, happy that Eiko found something to occupy her time, remained largely disinterested about how his wife spent her days.

After the funeral, Asai asks a few questions about Eiko’s death. She collapsed and died in a “cosmetics boutique” in a neighbourhood peppered with “couple’s hotels.” Some things about the story of Eiko’s death don’t add up. Asai begins to wonder what his wife was doing in this area, and the questions, which remain unanswered, fester in his head.

a quiet place

There are details of Japanese customs here–the  matchmaker’s job in bringing Asai and Eiko together, condolence money after the death of a loved one. And since this is Japanese fiction, this is a tale that takes its time, unwinding in unexpected ways as we learn about Asai’s life–now ruined by the unanswered questions about Eiko.

While A Quiet Place is a crime novel, it’s also deeply psychological. The phrase ‘a quiet place’ refers to a section of the book, but it’s also symbolic of Asai’s state of mind. He is an ambitious man–not in the traditional sense of wheeling and dealing his way to the top, but he’s a coat-hanger operative. He prides himself on being a good judge of character and is “adept at sniffing out whether someone was likely to rise in the ranks or not.” Occasionally, just occasionally, he’s “deliberately malicious.” Asai makes sure that he makes himself indispensable, even arranging for geishas for those he thinks will rise in the hopes that one day, all his hard work will be remembered and “justly rewarded” by those he’s served on their way up the ladder. Asai isn’t a bad person; he’s responsible, faithful to his wife and hardworking, but his job is of paramount importance to him, and his one great character flaw is his complete indifference to his wife as a sentient being. He “valued money above everything,” and right below his attitude to money, in the hierarchy of his characteristics, is Asai’s dread of scandal and losing his respectability.

And then there are the images of Eiko who’s dead when the novel opens, and yet the impressions of this rather sad woman remain:

It wasn’t uncommon for her to spend two or three days at a time lying on the sofa, claiming to be too tired to do any housework. Asai never complained. He’d go out shopping and do all the cooking and cleaning himself.

[…]

She had two completely different sides. Asai often wondered if she was bored staying at home with him. She certainly came to life whenever she went out anywhere.

Asai is surprised after Eiko’s death to learn from one of the women in Eiko’s haiku circle that his deceased wife wrote over 150 haiku:

“It was a case of quantity over quality, I imagine,” he said.

Imagine how shocked Asai is to learn that his wife actually had talent, and according to the haiku teacher Eiko’s death has cut short the writing life of a truly gifted woman. Oh the irony–Eiko becomes more interesting and valuable to Asai in death than she ever was in life. And then it makes sense why we know nothing about Asai’s first wife. She was a blank, just like Eiko would have been a blank if not for the clues left behind in the haiku.

I’ve read only a few Japanese novels, and now I’m determined to read more. Yes, probably crime novels, but A Quiet Place is much more than a crime novel, it’s a character study, so don’t let that genre tag put anyone off. This is a slow-burn novel about how, in spite of the greatest planning and self-discipline, a middle aged man’s life goes off the rails.

Suggestions for further books welcomed.

Review copy

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

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