#158: The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) by Akimitsu Takagi [trans. Deborah Boehm 1998]

tattoo-murder-caseSince Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was republished by Pushkin Vertigo, I’ve found myself reading increasing amounts of Japanese detective fiction: the shin honkaku of The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji and The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa from Locked Room International, The Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (yes, The Devotion of Suspect X will follow in due course…), and I’ve recently started Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) manga.  And authors such as Seicho Matsumoto and Kyotaro Nishimura are climbing ever-higher up by TBB list as I encounter more of the high-quality work that has been translated for our pleasure.  And, of course, the proliferation of impossible crimes in these stories doesn’t hurt, with the added cross-cultural glimpses also offered simply making them an even more attractive proposition.

Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case is my first encounter with outright honkaku (to my understanding, the shin means ‘new’ and applies to more modern forays into the form) and, well, it’s not a great start.  Yes, there’s some wonderfully offhand cultural submersion, and an absolutely fascinating look at the counter-culture of tattoo obsessives in post-WWII Japan, and there’s even a bathroom that’s been locked from the inside and contains an arrangement of severed limbs along with all the usual mod cons, but when Kirkus Reviews said that this was ‘Calculated to outdo John Dickson Carr in both ghoulishness and ingenuity’ they’re forgetting that a) JDC wasn’t really all that ghoulish and, more importantly, b) the definition of ‘ingenuity’.

As a mystery, it has not stood the test of time.  The actual solution would make a superb herring to dangle in front of the reader’s nose and then unveil about halfway through when they think they’ve solved it and are getting bored (which would be reminiscent of which author? CLUE: Jack’s Nordic Horn (anag.)), but instead the characters wander into the kind of blind assumption that clearly has to be the solution simply because it is only addressed in the most oblique ways possible.  I have to give Takagi credit for scrupulously laying every single point out for the reader — this is about the fairest playest book I’ve ever read — and each step makes absolutely perfect sense in the context…but that’s also the huge problem: it all makes sense, so you know exactly why it’s being done, and so you figure out the solution as a result.

Tattoo MurderThe locked room, then, was my hope of salvation — especially as the murder plot lost steam about halfway through (after which, yes, there were more murders, but they felt so…desultory) — and that’s just a horrible failure.  It’s the exact same method as what I’m going to call “the most famous work published by an author who only ever wrote pseudonymously” and, as such, a minor technical feat which isn’t clever or interesting enough to warrant a mention.  Worst of all, the reasoning for the locked room is…just the most horrible cod-psychology ever.  But, in fact, the entire final third is steeped in awful psychological crud of the “The way he plays chess means he can’t possibly be a murderer!” (sic) variety and, well, that simply doesn’t fly in this era.  I appreciate the difficulties in appropriating a different modality of expression for these types of stories, and it may have been a revelatory expansion of this at the time, but age has not been kind to it in any way.

Away from the mystery, though, it’s actually pretty good.  There’s an effortless background dose of Oriental culture in here — the size of a room is described in ‘mats’, and there’s a sprinkling of lore around foxes, for instance — and the first 30 or so pages revel in the detail of tattooing and the culture and taboos that have sprung up around it in a manner that makes me want to read a book purely about that.  The unusual structure, too, I absolutely loved (the detective who solves the case doesn’t appear until about two-thirds through, for instance) but then I’ve recently been a fan of an uncommon story-form, and I think I’ll enjoy anything that shakes up these conventions well.  Alas, the translation feels too workmanlike to really allow you to relax into this side of things; what sounds like the occasional dissonant Westernism (cf. “I haven’t got the foggiest”) kept this feeling like a translation and pulled me out of the story at key times.

So…a mixed bag.  Too simple in structure to satisfy puzzle nerds, and too basic in impossibility to quench the hankerings of locked room fans, but as a document of a subculture at a specific time in history it’s very good indeed.  Alas, I’m here for the kills and the brains, though I appreciate the insight it gave me into something new.  It’s nice to still be learning things at my age…

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

I submit this book for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category A Brunette (woman or man).

23 thoughts on “#158: The Tattoo Murder Case (1948) by Akimitsu Takagi [trans. Deborah Boehm 1998]

  1. I would rate it as 3.
    I found the plot clever, but the writing style is dull and the locked room stuff is nothing much to speak of—-I detest this type of locked room solution.

    Also when a person gets into a scuffle and gets jailed, it is obvious that he is doing it deliberately !


    • I completely agree about the locked room solution; it seems a shame that this kind of explanation was still being used after all the brilliant work done in the genre by certain high-profile authors prior to 1948, though obviously I’m unsure as to how much of that work would have been translated andr made it to Japan prior to this book’s publication…


  2. I enjoyed reading this post as of late I have been pondering what sort of crime fiction was going on pre 1960 outside of the UK and USA. There are obvious writers such as Simenon (which I’ve never massively enjoyed) and Van Gulik and this year I have come across 1930s Italian writer De Angelis, whose work does have a GAD flavour to it. But I would like to read more non UK and USA detective novels which are more in the GAD vein and/or from this earlier time period. Though perhaps it seems I should not start with this book!


  3. This is sitting on my bookshelf, along with Honeymoon to Nowhere by the same author. I had borrowed them from a friend, but I keep hearing bad things. Now I really don’t know if I will read them.weak mysteries I can (sometimes) handle; dull prose, never.


    • The tattoo stuff is genuinely interesting, and I think the language is a little stilted on account of the uneven translation. If anyone wanted to do another translation of it now that translating is a bit more of an understood niche in mystery fiction it’d be a good candidate, I think. As it is, you can pass on it without missing too much.


  4. Sadly, the locked room is not a classic example of its kind and (IIRC) needed a floor plan of the crime scene, but I found the book, as a whole, to be very interesting.

    As far as the weaknesses are concerned, I always wondered if the translator was aware of S.S. van Dine’s work. Originally, the title of the book (in Japanese) is simply The Tattoo Murder, but the locked room is very similar to the ones that can be found in Van Dine’s work (e.g. The Kennel Murder Case) and I guess you can also draw a comparison between the writing style of both authors. So it makes you wonder if the translator picked The Tattoo Murder Case as the English title, because the book can be neatly fitted into the Van School of Detection.

    By the way, I have been recently thinking of re-reading The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo. Not a locked room, but a genuine classic of Japanese detective fiction.


    • You raise a number of interesting points, which I shall return to when I have a little more time. However, The Inugami Clan is on my TBB, so it’s great to hear another recommendation for that — many thanks!


  5. I agree that the translation is partly to blame for this edition being so dull. I had a hell of a time getting interested in this book. Even while reading your review I could recall absolutely nothing about it. On the other hand, The Inugami Clan is one of the best Japanese mystery novels to have been translated into English. Loved it. Tokyo Zodiac Murders is also good, but it when the solution came I saw that the writer had based his plot on a very familiar logic puzzle and adapted it to series of dead bodies. So he lost major points in the originality category for me.


    • Sorry, John, somehow this comment got past me — I really think a second translation would help here, as there are plenty of things that should be memorable but aren’t, and it lacks the nightmarish angle of even the rather prosaic Tokyo Zdoiac translation that’s doing the rounds…shame Pushkin didn’t spring for a new take on that, as it may never happen now, what with ebooks ensuring the preservation of everything forever.

      And your praise for Inugami Clan further strengthens my intention of tracking down a copy…I may even break my ‘no secondhand books bought online’ rule for this now…and carnage and financial ruination will doubtless follow hard thereupon 🙂


  6. Pingback: #161: Hawk & Fisher (1990) by Simon R. Green | The Invisible Event

  7. I saw your tweet about this getting reprinted. I’m curious if it is a different translation and whether that might influence how enjoyable it is. I have the 1998 Soho Crimes edition that you pictured in your post.


    • It would appear to be the same translation simply getting a new cover, rather than a completely new version. I think Pushkin are — wisely — saving their translation fund for books not previously seen in English.


          • It doesn’t seem fair to blame the translation until you’ve read more than one of them…something could be hard to read because it’s a faithful rendition of the author’s original text, so only with something to compare it to can we really know who is to blame. Imagine the density of The Roman Hat Mystery being laid purely at the feet of the person who was expert enough to become fluent in two, non-compatible languages and guide something as complex as that over the fence and into the arms of a new audience. That would hardly be fair.

            I remember this being a slightly difficult read, and a slightly long-winded one, too, but who’s to say where the fault for that lies? I’d snap up a new translation in order to see what I thought of a different take on the same material, but we’ll have to wait for that. As it happens, I’ll probably buy this reprint anyway because it looks awesome.


            • I have read several Japanese detection novels translated into English. It is only for The Tattoo Murder Case that I struggled with the prose style. And that was already in Chapter 1. So, it’s the prose style rather than the density of the plot that I think are to blame. Though you are correct that I am not in the position to attribute my poor experience to the source text or the translation itself, I still suspect the latter is at least partly to blame.


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