Since 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.
The 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…