Seicho Matsumoto is known for popularising detective fiction, with several of his books translated into English and adapted into films. The short story 顔 won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957. The collection I read contains 5 short stories: 顔、張込み、声、地方紙を買う女、白い闇. Some of these stories have been translated into English by Adam Kabat and compiled into the collection The Voice and Other Stories.
Mystery Writers of Japan Award – PROJECT – I read this book as part of my project to read all the winners of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (at least, the books that are available today). Follow my progress here!
This collection of short stories is one of the most entertaining collection of mysteries I have read. The prize winner, 顔, was certainly the best story, but all are excellent and if you like one, you will probably like the others too.
Both 顔 and 地方紙を買う女 were similar in structure. We have a protagonist who is clearly hiding something, but we don’t know what it is at first. These two stories are my favourite, because it creates a tension between caring for the protagonist on the one hand and looking for the truth on the other hand. The reader does not know whether they should identify with the protagonist or keep a suspicious eye on them, and this makes for suspenseful and entertaining stories. 顔 in particular has a very good ending, and belongs now to my favourite short stories of crime fiction.
声 has a similar theme than 顔, where recognition (of a person’s voice or face) plays a role in the mystery. The two stories also have a similar structure with two different parts. While 声 did not have the same impact than 顔 it was still very good with an interesting police investigation in it as well.
白い闇 is a mystery about a husband who suddenly disappears. Even though the outcome is predictable, the story was enjoyable.
Finally, 張り込み is certainly my least favourite short story, but it was still very good, though quite depressive at the end.
Overall, the characters are all very complex for characters of short stories. Some are tormented by a dark past, some want to protect their secrets and some want to find out the truth. As for the Japanese level, this book is certainly the easiest I have read so far among the prize winners.
I will definitely check out Matsumoto’s other books!
Mystery Writers of Japan Award – PROJECT – I read this book as part of my project to read all the winners of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (at least, the books that are available today). Follow my progress here!
Famous figures of the decadent literary circles of post-war Japan find themselves, as well as some uninvited guests, in the family house of the Utagawas. Many of these guests cannot stand each other and this chaotic reunion soon witnesses a series of strange and scary murders.
When the book was first serialised in 1947, the author challenged the readers to find the murderer before the publication of the last chapters. He offered a financial prize, and challenged by name several personalities of the time as well as the fictional police officers of his novel. And of course, any reader could participate.
The fact that one reader of the time was able to give a perfect answer to Sakaguchi’s challenge shows that we have all the elements we need to solve the mystery. Sakaguchi himself insists on that point several times: we, the reader, are given all the elements to solve the crimes. As such, this is a perfect whodunnit, which I think is quite rare. As Ango Sakaguchi said when he revealed the names of the winners, many detective novels are disappointing, and even though I would not go as far as saying that 99,99% of them fall into this category, 『不連続殺人事件』surely does not.
To find the solution, we are provided with everything that the police officers of the novel have access to. Unfortunately, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information we are given. This is what happened to me, and this is why I decided to read the novel in parallel with the French translation. The Japanese was quite difficult to begin with, but trying to sort every bit of information and lead my own investigation was almost impossible to do in Japanese: too many characters (all introduced at the same time!), too many murders, too many alibis to verify and too many clues.
To give you an example of what I mean by too much information, this is the map that is provided by the author. Floor and building maps play an important role in detective novels, but I have always assumed that they were there to help the reader, not confuse them 🤔 When Ango Sakaguchi says that we have access to the same elements than the characters, he means it literally. This is the “real” map of the villa, not a simplified version made for the reader. (I have read a lot of detective novels, but I never saw a map with 56 indications!)
But… you have no choice but to investigate yourself, because no one else is doing it. There are police officers and even a character who is here as a detective, but they never investigate, or if they do, we don’t see them doing it. As such, this novel differs from classic detective novels where we follow the investigation of the fictional detective. The role of the police is clearly to give us, readers, all the elements we need. They appear after the murder to collect every character’s alibis but then, they just don’t do anything with this information. Even the other characters do not seem particularly interested in solving the crime, and our narrator does not do much either.
This is barely surprising, given that most of them are writers. As one character states in the novel, writers are similar to criminals, not to detectives (it follows that it is the reader who should assume the role of the detective):
And the characters of this novel are not easy people to be with. Some of them cannot stand each other and make it clear every time they have an occasion to do so. They are arrogant, proud, rude and even insulting when addressing certain characters, if not violent. They are constantly quarrelling, and to be honest, the dialogues and the relations between the characters were the most difficult things to understand in Japanese to me.
This is why I made a character map (pdf) for anyone who wants to read this book in Japanese. The story is very complex and if you don’t have a clear vision of people’s relationships to each other (attraction, resentment, general dislike), then the story and the dialogues become very difficult to understand.
I did not manage to find the solution, but I had fun trying to. I wish that Ango Sakaguchi had written more detective novels…
Finally, I should add that I found Estelle Figon’s translation to be truly excellent. The text is full of pep and a real delight to read!
Title: 『ベスト8ミステリーズ2017』 Edited by the Mystery Writers of Japan (日本推理作家協会） Published by 講談社文庫 439 pages
The Mystery Writers of Japan is an association founded by Edogawa Rampo in 1947. It presents two annual awards: the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for long and short fiction and the Edogawa Rampo Award for unpublished fiction.
The association also compiles a collection of the best short stories published each year. The book I am reviewing here is for the year 2017.
The short stories compiled in this edition are:
偽りの春 by Ten Furuta (降田天) (Ten Furuta is the pen name of Ei Hagino 萩野瑛 and So Ayukawa 鮎川颯. 階段室の女王 by Tadanori Masuda (増田忠紀) 火事と標本 by Tomoya Sakurada (櫻田智也) ただ、運が悪かっただけ by Yo Ashizawa (芦沢央) 理由 by Yoshiki Shibata (柴田よしき) プロジェクト：シャーロック by Takemaru Abiko (我孫子武丸) 葬儀の裏で by Nanami Wakatake (若竹七海) 虹 by Miyuki Miyabe (宮部みゆき)
Illustration from 火事と標本
Unsurprisingly, all the short stories in this book are excellent, and reading it was a pure delight. Not only this format gives you the assurance that each short story will be very good, but it also allows you to discover new authors and read different styles.
The first short story is the winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, and it was so good! It is the kind of story that makes you want to stop everything you are doing and read the entire bibliography of the author (or in this case, the authors). It is impressive to see how a 50 pages long story can manage to be so suspenseful and to trick the reader as well. The end really surprised me, because I was sure that I was right in my interpretation, but I was wrong.
My favourite story is another one though: 火事と標本. This story had the more interesting characters and it had a very strong impact on me. It is the kind of story that keeps you thinking about the characters and what happened. Again, this is only a 50 pages long story, but it affected me more than many novels have, and the characters are extremely well portrayed and feel very true. The end was also very good, just as I though that this story was not really a mystery, it turned out that it was.
Speaking of impactful characters, the story by Miyuki Miyabe was to me the second best when it comes to characters depiction. The protagonist is a mother who fled her abusive husband and his family and found refuge in a shelter for women. Miyuki Miyabe makes you feel immediately close to the characters, and the story was really good. I just think that it is not really a mystery.
階段室の女王 was very entertaining and very well done I found. It felt very immersive and what started like an unlucky encounter turns into a real nightmare. The way someone who is perfectly innocent starts thinking and acting like a culprit when put in a certain situation was very well described. Overall, this was a fun and entertaining read.
プロジェクト：シャーロットis a SF detective fiction and was also a fun read. Though I prefer more realistic stories, I really liked this one and found the end very good.
理由 is a more classic story, and I found that some points were not convincing enough, but still a very enjoyable story if you like the genre.
ただ、運が悪かっただけ was unfortunately coming just after 火事と標本, and it shares a similar structure where a character shares an episode of his past with someone, which leads to a long flashback. Compared to 火事と標本, which shows us a really gripping tragedy, I fond that ただ、運が悪かっただけ looked pale, and I could not feel involved in the story of what the characters felt.
Finally, I must say that the story I liked the least is 葬儀の裏で by Nanami Wakatake. After reading a whole novel by this author (プレゼント), I came to the conclusion that her writing style was not really for me. I had exactly the same feeling when reading this short story. I still found it good and I enjoyed reading it, but not as much as the other stories. I also have a hard time connecting with the characters.
I will try to get my hands on the other collections of this series. Even though I prefer novels over short stories, this book is one of my favourite reads of the year.
Title: 『吸血鬼』 Author: Edogawa Rampo (江戸川乱歩) Published by 集英社文庫 437 pages
This is the seventh book in the Kogoro Akechi collection published by Shueisha. Kogoro Akechi is a fictional detective created by Edogawa Rampo. My reading challenge for 2021 is to finish the whole collection of 12 books by reading one book per month.
This is my favourite book of the series! First of all, we meet Fumiyo again, the only interesting female character of the whole series. She appeared first in 『魔術師』where she played a major role in the plot. Now, she works with Kogoro Akechi as his assistant and is described as a female detective. We also meet the young Kobayashi who helps Akechi and works in his office (and who will become the main protagonist in the 少年探偵団 series).
Contrary to the previous stories where Akechi worked alone, we now see a team building itself. In previous novels, Akechi’s life and whereabouts were kept mysterious, we knew for example that he just came back from abroad, but we didn’t know what he was doing there. There were no mention of where he lived, he just appeared out of nowhere to solve the crime. With 『吸血鬼』, Kogoro Akechi feels more tangible and human.
The plot is also excellent, one of the most complex of the series with several good twists. Generally, the mystery in the novels of the series is easy to crack, and I think that most readers know what will happen next, or have a good idea about who is who or what tricks the author is using. This novel, however, managed to surprise me several times and reading it was really exciting.
Similarly to 『魔術師』, there were a good amount of memorable scenes in this book. To cite only one, I really loved the scene of the coffin. It is quite long, but very well described and extremely immersive. Overall, this novel is just a succession of great moments, there is both deduction, action and horror in a perfect mix.
I also liked how everything is explained in this novel. Most of the time, in the other novels, the story lacks realism, with criminals who make impossible escapes and other tricks like disguise or the use of mannequins that are not credible. I felt that at the end of the novels, a lot of mysteries were left untouched, but in this one, everything is explained in a long but exciting passage where Akechi reveals the truth and how he found it.
However, what I loved the most in this novel lies elsewhere: for the first time since the first short stories of the series, the criminal has a motive. In all the other novels, the criminal kills people because he is “the worst and most dangerous criminal of all times”, and that’s it. There is no explanation, no reason for their actions. In 『吸血鬼』, people have their reasons for acting like they do, and instead of having just a big villain, we have secret motives and a somber past.
Finally, the end of the novel was excellent with a fun hint to one of Edogawa Rampo’s most famous work.
With 『魔術師』and the short stories of the first book, this is my favourite novel of the series. Hopefully, the next one will be as good!
Title: 『空飛ぶタイヤ』 (そらとぶたいや) Author: Jun Ikeido (池井戸潤) Published by 講談社文庫 907 pages
This novel was published in 2006 and is inspired by a real accident that involved Mitsubishi. In 2002, a 29-year-old mother was killed when the wheel of a Mitsubishi trunk broke off and hit her. Her two children were injured. This happened just two years after Mitsubishi publicly recognized that it had covered up vehicle defects to avoid recalling them.
You really don’t need to know about the Mitsubishi scandal to enjoy 『空飛ぶタイヤ』, and even if you are not an avid reader of economic news, I heartily recommend you to give this novel a try.
Our main protagonist is Tokuro Akamatsu who owns a small transportation business. One of his trucks loses its wheel which leads to an accident similar to what happened in 2002. The novel takes us in a epic battle with Akamatsu’s small company on one side and Hope Motors Corporation, the giant automotive manufacturer, on the other side.
The topic of a small business and employees fighting for justice is appealing in itself, but in Jun Ikeido’s novel, it becomes a most exciting quest filled with emotional moments. I cannot remember the last time I felt so emotionally involved in a novel. I was both trembling with rage and shedding tears of joy with Akamatsu.
Another thing that I loved in this novel is how much we learn about how a big corporation works. Seeing how different services compete inside of Hope Cars was both an interesting insight and a nice addition to the plot. Similarly, the delicate position of Hope Bank, which belongs to the same group, spiced up the story while opening my eyes on things I never really thought of before.
I also found that the characters were more interesting and complex than in the other book I read by Ikeido, which was 『アキラとあきら』. In Akira, the characters were either good, nice and brilliant or ill-intentioned and stupid. While the novel was excellent, the characters’ actions were dictated by their nature (good or bad) rather than circumstances or inner struggles. In 『空飛ぶタイヤ』, the characters are more complex, and while there is still a good vs bad frame, there are more interesting characters who are torn between their own interests and what they know to be just.
Overall, 『空飛ぶタイヤ』 is one of the most engrossing novels I have read in Japanese so far, the characters and the whole story feel very real, the novel takes you on an emotional roller coaster filled with tension and suspense. The book reads like a thriller, but what makes it so gripping is that it deeply cares about people.
Yujiro Nakayama is a surgeon and author of medical fiction and nonfiction. This novel is the second volume in the series 泣くな研修医. There is a drama adaptation as well.
I loved the first book of the series, 『泣くな研修医』, and I loved this one as well. I find that they are very similar, so if you liked one, you will certainly like the other too, though the first one may have been a little more impressive to me.
In this novel, our protagonist Ryuji has finished his internship and is now a surgeon, but he still has a lot of challenges to face. I found that the first novel pictured very well the awkward position of new doctors: even though they went through long studies to learn their job, it feels like they have to learn everything from scratch when they are faced with real patients.
In this second volume, Ryuji has gathered some experience, but he still makes mistakes and wonders if he can ever be a good doctor. His position is made even more delicate when he works with a new talented intern.
I find very interesting to see how Ryuji evolves, and I loved following his quest to gain confidence and become a good surgeon. I highly recommend to read the series in order for this reason.
All this being said, I also found that the scenes outside the hospital might be a bit weaker than the rest. In this novel, they mainly describe a romantic relationship, and they did not manage to make me feel involved or even interested. I found that the author is very good at picturing life and work inside the hospital, but the romantic scenes were not at the same level in my opinion.
I also found that the novel stays very minimalist in terms of characters. There are only two main patients in the whole novel and I find that the number of colleagues with whom Ryuji interacts is also limited. This makes for a quick and easy read, but this book is so good that I cannot help but wanting more: more stories, more patients, more cases, more colleagues, more challenging illnesses and fights for life.
Finally, I found that, similarly to the first novel, it would be great to know more about Ryuji’s family. The end of this novel was very brutal I found, and I wish it had given us more time to digest it.
In spite of these minor critics, I loved 『逃げるな新人外科医』, it reads extremely quickly, and it is a real page turner. I just wish that the story as a whole and the character of Ryuiji were a little deeper and more complex.
When it comes to the Japanese level, there is some medical vocabulary, but not as much as you would expect, and there are a lot of recurring words as well, so even if you are not familiar with medical words in Japanese, this should not be a problem. And if you intend to read the whole series (3 books) like me, the vocabulary you build up will be useful for the next books as well.
This is the 5th book in the Kogoro Akechi (明智小五郎) collection, and my reading challenge for 2021 is to read one book per month.
「今度の賊は犯罪史上に前例もないほど恐ろしいやつだ。」 (At this point, I feel like there is a similar statement in each and every Akechi novel… 😅)
I absolutely loved this novel. The story is really great, it feels like reading Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Alan Poe and Gaston Leroux at the same time. Mysterious threatening letters and a locked room mystery… I am here for that!
I also found that the novel remains suspenseful and engaging until the end. Even though there are some predictable events, the story always find a way to trigger the reader’s curiosity. This is the fifth book of the series that I read, and I find that the story tends to become repetitive after a while in longer novels. 『魔術師』 keeps surprising the reader with unexpected scenes and twists, and it is my favourite novel so far.
Closer to the first Akechi
In the last two novels, Akechi only appeared briefly and very late, but in 『魔術師』 he is here right from the beginning. The reader is also able to feel closer to him than in the previous novels: we follow him in his investigation, and he feels like a concrete character who actually has a place to live and is animated by feelings. As a result, I found that this novel felt like reading the first short stories, where Akechi was actually our protagonist and not just some kind of deus ex machina intervention to solve the mystery at the end of the novel.
What really surprised me in this novel is how spooky some scenes are. There were dismembered bodies and things like that in the previous books, but this one brings things to the next level with very memorable scenes. The scene of the clock was very striking and not one I am likely to forget. The magic show was also quite disturbing. Overall, I found every single scene of this novel much better than any of the previous ones. Characters are not just simply locked in dark rooms, there are chilling details and sinister background stories that make this novel stand out compared to the others.
I did not really like the previous novel 『猟奇の果』, and overall, I found that I was liking the Kogoro Akechi books less and less, so this one came as a pleasant surprise. I also found that the narrator often hinted at previous stories, creating a complicity with the reader who has been reading the whole series… it feels good to be a part of it 🙂
Illustration: 実は福田氏は飼っている純白の牡猫なのだが… (if you read the story, you’ll know that my drawing is not accurate, but it was easier to leave it like that.)
Title: 『聖母』 (せいぼ) Author: Rikako Akiyoshi (秋吉理香子) Published by 双葉社文庫 301 pages
Rikako Akiyoshi has written several mystery novels, including 『暗黒女子』 which has been adapted into film in 2017.
When I was reading this book, I was thinking that it was a good thriller, easy to read and suspenseful enough, even though it was not the best mystery novel I had ever read. But the end… wow, it completely blew my mind! I was so taken aback that my first reaction was to doubt my Japanese level. I thought I had misunderstood the book entirely, and I had to check reviews from native readers to see if they had been tricked as well.
I feverously re-read several passages, when I finished the book, haha. It’s the kind of novel that makes you want to re-read it when you finished it.
I love mystery novels that play with the reader and have something more going on than just the murder case of the story, and 『聖母』 really falls in this category.
Now I must say that the novel also suffers a little from its trick. The problem is that I had a hard time understanding or feeling sympathy for the characters. I could understand or guess what they had been through, and while this justified their feelings, it did not really gave a plausible explanation for their actions.
Obviously, everything comes into place at the end and this is why I found this book so good. But at the same time, I was reading the whole book thinking that the characters (and their actions) were not realistic. I thought it was a flaw in the novel, and you really need to read it until the end to see how good it is.
Overall, 『聖母』 is the kind of book that makes me want to check out the whole bibliography of its author. I will certainly read the other mystery novels by Rikako Akiyoshi. Her latest book, 息子のボーイフレンド is also on my list, though I will wait to see if it gets a bunko edition.
Title: 『告白』 (こくはく) Author: Kanae MINATO (湊かなえ) Published by 双葉文庫 (ふたばぶんこ) 317 pages
『告白』 is Kanae Minato’s debut novel and her most famous work. It has been translated into English by Stephen Snyder. There is a film adaptation directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (中島哲也) with Takako Matsu (松たか子) in the role of Yuko Moriguchi.
Wow, this book is so good, definitely one of my favourite mystery novels so far! Why on earth did I not read this book sooner? 😅 And how can this be a debut novel? 😮
To be honest, I did not love all Kanae Minato’s books that I have read, so I was not in a hurry to read 『告白』 even though I had it sitting on my shelf for years, and I knew that it was universally praised.
Reading this book has been quite a shock. It is so good! You are instantaneously dragged into the story by the first-person narrator’s voice and you just cannot stop reading. When the first chapter is over and you feel that you are already emotionally drained, you realise that things are only just starting and the rest will be much more disturbing.
Fantastic characters sudies
All the characters of the story are extremely complex, with very interesting personalities and emotional patterns. The mystery at the centre of the novel seems very simple at first, but once you hear several characters telling their version of the event, you start seeing the complex and subtle accumulations of triggers that have led to it. It was fascinating to see how the characters’ weaknesses influenced their behaviour.
I have rarely read a book that had me change my mind so many times. Kanae Minato really tricks the reader into forming preconceived and harsh opinions about characters to completely blow up your judgements in the next chapter.
What is disturbing is that this novel makes you understand the motivations that led to abominable acts, and even sympathise with their perpetrators. Reading this book really made me go through a lot of different emotional states, while being engrossing all along.
Title: 『アキラとあきら』 Author: Jun Ikeido 池井戸潤 Published by 集英社文庫 720 pages
Jun Ikeido is a popular author of business novels, most of which have been adapted into drama. Published in 2017, 『アキラとあきら』 it one of his most recent novels.
There is a one volume edition and a two-volume edition. I bought the two-books edition and found that the summary of the second book reveals too much. I heartily recommend to not read it!
There is a drama adaptation featuring Osamu Mukai 向井理 and Takumi Saito 斎藤工.
Akira Yamazaki and Akira Kaido could not have more opposite background: Yamazaki has grown up near his father’s small factory in a rural area, while Kaido’s father is the director of one of Japan’s biggest steamship companies. We follow them over several years, as they navigate the dramatic changes that have shaped Japan’s economy from the 70s to the 90s.
Easy to understand and suspenseful
This is the first business novel I read, and I was very surprised by how engrossing all this bank stuff can be! I know nothing about finance, and I was afraid I would have a hard time following the story, but the book turned out to be quite easy to follow, even for newbies like me. Jun Ikeido really makes a great job at making all the financial intrigues and conversations very accessible even if you are not familiar to these kinds of topics.
It is also super engrossing! I would have thought that bank loans and investments would be boring topics for a novel, but the truth is that I could not put down the book. I am not sure that you can classify 『アキラとあきら』 as a financial thriller – as there is no real financial crime in it, but it does have a good dose of suspense in it.
Not as much about friendship than business
The reason why I bought this book even though I am not particularly interested in finance, is because I thought it would be more about friendship and rivalry between the two protagonists.
Actually, and contrary to the drama, Kaido and Yamazaki are very rarely together, and they meet for business only. This book is mostly about business and apart from passages dedicated to the two Akira’s youth, there is not much going on in terms of private life.
Long but too short!
This book is the longest book I have read in Japanese, but it almost felt too short! It is so good that I wanted it to last longer and tell me more about the main characters. The end, especially, while quite good, felt a little abrupt. I was thinking: “what, is that it? But what happens next? Is there a second volume?”. I could not help but wanting more business adventures with the two Akiras.
Good guys and bad guys
The only thing that I did not like that much in the novel is that characters can be quite stereotyped. The characters’ actions and intentions lack some depth in my opinion. Good characters do good things because they are kind and smart, and bad characters do bad things because they are greedy and/or stupid.
As such, reading this novel often felt like watching a drama with characters falling into predefined roles, which annoyed me a little.
I said that all the business-related passages were easy to follow, but obviously, reading them in Japanese makes everything much more complicated. I recognised a lot of words that I learned when I was preparing for the JLPT N1, but still, I had to look up a bunch of other new words. I also had to re-read some passages several times and make an effort to understand them.
The non-business related passages are not particularly difficult, but there are a lot of conversations around investments, loans and management, so you have to be prepared for some dictionary work if you are not already familiar with tackling these topics in Japanese.
『アキラとあきら』 is definitely one of my favourite books read in Japanese so far, and I heartily recommend it! If you are new to business novels like me, this one is a really good place to start as we learn everything together with Kaido and Yamazaki as they grow up.
This is my first Jun Ikeido but certainly not my last, I cannot wait to read more by this author 🙂
(I made the drawing of this post using a scene from the drama.)