#JanuaryInJapan: Two Crime Novels

Apologies, I still call this January in Japan, because I love the alliteration, but it is actually the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza for the sixteenth year(!). I eased myself in with two books at the opposite ends of the crime fiction spectrum.

Matsumoto Seicho: Tokyo Express, transl. Jesse Kirkwood

This author’s work spanned most of the 20th century (born 1909, died 1992) and he is considered one of the classics of Japanese crime fiction. The blurb on the Penguin Classics edition of the book entitled Ten to Sen in Japanese (literal translation: Points and Lines) says ‘His exploration of human psychology and Japanese post-war malaise, coupled with the creation of twisting, dark mysetires, made him one of the most acclaimed and best-selling writers in Japan’. But I didn’t see much psychology in this book – on the contrary, it is the type of mystery that relies very much on tiny details and an encyclopedic knowledge of train timetables to break an alibi, more reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Croft (who was a railroad engineer before he started writing crime novels). It comes as no surprise to hear that the author holed up in Room 209 of the Tokyo Station Hotel with the train timetables while writing this in 1958.

Needless to say, this kind of story heavily reliant on accurate train times (with four minute gaps and consecrated platforms for each train) could only work in that particular place and time. Can you imagine trying to replicate that in the current chaos of train travel that has become the norm in the UK? (Let alone how expensive it would be to take a train to commit a murder – you’re better off hiring a contract killer!) It turns out that there is a whole subgenre of Japanese literature based on crimes occurring near or on trains (most recent examples: Bullet Train), or else where alibis rely on a timetable. Although commercial domestic flights had begun in Japan in the 1950s, it was not a widespread form of transportation yet.

The death of a young couple on a beach in Fukuoka is instantly classified as a double love suicide, which was still quite common at the time in Japan (Dazai Osamu died in this fashion less than ten years before this book was published). Interesting and rather sad sidenote: double suicide (or homicide-suicide) for couples is now far more common among the elderly in Japan, for economic or health reasons. A wily old local detective doesn’t quite buy it, and his Tokyo counterpart becomes equally obsessed with proving that there is something more behind it, possibly linked to government corruption. But all of their efforts to find evidence to support their theories seem to hit a brick wall, at least at first (and for most of the book). I thought it was an interesting look at the sheer drudgery of police work, checking and double-checking every minute detail, especially before the age of computers.

What spoilt the mystery element of it for me, however, was that the very first chapter pretty much gives away the whodunit and why, although not the details of how. We also gain next to no insight into the private lives of the two detectives, nor get a glimpse into the psyche of any of the characters, perpetrators or victims. Tthe entire focus of the book is on the puzzle – how all of the pieces fit together.

Onda Riku: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, transl. Alison Watts

By way of contrast, Onda’s book is all about psychology, about observing and outwitting each other, about digging deep into the past, into trauma and guilt. In fact, we are not even sure if a crime has been committed, or if it was an accident, although the two main protagonists blame each other for it.

Hiro and Aki, a man and a woman, have packed up all of their belongings and are sitting for one last night in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Their relationship has broken down, they no longer trust each other after going on an excursion in the mountains a year ago, where their guide had a fatal accident. They buy food and drink to last them through the night, and see this as an opportunity for a ‘face-off’, i.e. get the other to confess that they were responsible for the death of their guide. Along the way, of course, they unravel all sorts of feelings of guilt and resentment about their own unconventional love story.

Just like with the Aosawa Murders by the same author, this is not the kind of book you read for the crime element. Although it is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, it is above all a sad story about loneliness and the need for connection. The fish metaphor of the title hints that there are hidden depths here, and that we can only ever hope to catch glimpses of the true nature of people and the essence of a relationship, but those are things that will always ultimately escape us.

If I were younger, I might have been able to let the emotions of the moment carry me along, and throw everything away. Or I might have been capable of ending our relationship with a single stroke and leaving on the spot. But the older one gets, the harder it is to do that kind of thing. All manner of compromises and caluclations must be taken into account, and above all the fear of loneliness is real. If a few sad memories and hurt feelings are the sole price, then closing one’s eyes to the other’s faults and curling up in retreat is easy enough to do.

The backstory feels a little far-fetched to me, but the author does a good job of drip-feeding us more details, with the chapters alternating between the two narrators, Aki and Hiro, which allows us to see differences in their approaches and ways of thinking. While not quite as ambiguous and clever as The Aosawa Murders, this is perhaps a more comfortable entry point for Onda’s work.

So this book was all psychological depth but no proper investigation, while Tokyo Express was all investigation and no psychological depth. If you want to read a book that combines both, I would recommend Higashino Keigo’s A Death in Tokyo, which made my best of the year list in 2022.

Disclaimer: I have set up a bookshop on the Bookshop.org website, so if you click and buy via my links, I will receive a tiny affiliate commission. You can check out more of my recommended recent reads and purchases here.

19 thoughts on “#JanuaryInJapan: Two Crime Novels”

  1. I have been wanting to read Tokyo Express for what seems like forever, Marina Sofia, and I still haven’t (why do we let that happen?). I am glad to be reminded of it. And you know, I like the alliteration, too…

  2. Wonderful reviews, Marina! I love the title Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. So beautiful! I want to read that Keigo Higashino book you’ve recommended. Thanks for sharing 😊

    1. It has some lyrical descriptions of fish and dappled sunlight (and other beautiful passages), but there are also some passages which feel more trite or cliched.

  3. Enjoyed reading your reviews of both these. I read Tokyo Express last year, and quite enjoyed how the puzzle is pieced together. Somehow knowing whodunit didn’t spoil it for me though it is something that usually would have. But like you, I’d have liked to have known more about the two detectives.

  4. A couple of very interesting choices, Marina – although I’ve read a reasonable amount of Japanese fiction, I’ve not read much crime writing. But I’ve enjoyed what I have so will definitely have to explore further!!

    1. They were good fun and quick reads, which is not always the case with Japanese literature (much though I love it). So a perfect way to start the year. I am now reading Mieko Kawakami and it feels much more challenging.

  5. I’m thinking about trains these days, so of course I was interested in your thoughts on Tokyo Express and the train station subgenre. Is there anything remotely similar in Romanian lit (whether crime or not)?

  6. You are better than me at puzzles, I only worked out half of the whodunnit in Tokyo Express! Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it more – the surprise at the end. I’m also in the middle of Adam Bede atm and enjoyed the light diversion this offered one weekend.

    I was curious about the bookshop.org connection too. We’ve heard about this in the US and UK and there is talk that it might start in Australia too. It would be great if local bloggers could set up an account with their favourite books that linked to their favourite Independent bookshop. Let me know how you find it when you get a chance.

  7. Tokyo Express particularly appeals to me of the two. I wonder if knowing whodunit would bother me, I have read other mystery novels where it’s obvious or known and I haven’t minded. It’s a shame it spoilt it a little for you.

  8. I saw that Lizzy also read Tokyo Express, and now your review confirms that this is a book I must buy! I am currently finishing Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, so I read your thoughts rather lightly, but I completely agree: it is not a book one reads for the crime as much as all the other elements within it. Searching and lonely? Indeed!

    1. I realize Tokyo Express failed somewhat in pleasing you…still, I am interested in the train and timing aspect, as I was blown away by the Shinkansen in Japan. America has nothing even close to effective in terms of train transportation. I think we’re more like the Italians in that respect.🤭 One of my favorite pictures is of my husband in an Italian train station, sitting under a clock which read 3:30 when it was 12:00.

      1. Oh no, it was a perfectly fine novel – I enjoyed the puzzle element of it, even after knowing the perpetrator – how did he do it and why? And it made me soooo keen to travel all over Japan – soon, I hope!

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.