Translated by Jesse Kirkwood
Review by Karen Langley
Summer reading tastes vary, but for me there’s nothing better than settling down with a satisfying mystery novel, particularly of the Golden Age type. So I was very happy to be able to catch up with a recent release from Penguin of a 1950s Japanese murder mystery which has garnered much praise. The author, Seicho Matsumoto, was one of Japan’s most prolific crime authors, and is credited with popularising the genre in his country. Tokyo Express was his first novel and it’s widely regarded as his masterpiece; so it’s a delight to have it available in a stylish new Penguin edition, translated by Jesse Kirkwood.
The mystery centres around an apparent double suicide; that of Kenichi Sayama, a functionary in a government department, and a young waitress Toki. All the signs are of cyanide poisoning when the bodies are discovered on Kashii Beach in the south of the country. However, a shabby local detective by the name of Torigai Jutaro is not convinced, although he can’t put his finger on why. The dead man’s department was under suspicion of corruption; there is no evidence that the two dead people were actually lovers; and a dining car receipt for only one person is odd…
Kiichi Mihara, a younger detective from Tokyo, is send down to check things out, and after conversations with his older colleague he, too, has doubts. Yet how could this be murder and not suicide, and who would have a motive? Both detectives dig as deeply as they can, but any possible suspects have perfect and unshakable alibis. Yet something isn’t right, and with the blessing of his chief in Tokyo, the younger man continues to investigate. Can he and his colleague get to the bottom of the mystery and find the truth? And how will they get past those alibis?
Tokyo Express is a fascinating read from start to finish and it’s clear to see why it’s so highly regarded. The book takes Golden Age tropes of the police procedural and gives them a local twist; and the mystery is meticulously plotted from start to finish. Matusmoto’s style is economic and suits his narrative, making the book compelling and incredibly readable – needless to say, I raced through it like a bullet train!
Ah yes, trains… These are crucial to the story, as is obvious from the title, and from the very start timetables, arrivals and departures take a prominent place in the narrative. The first chapter involves two of Tori’s fellow waitresses witnessing her departure on the train with her apparent lover, and even from that early point the astute reader finds this event almost too conveniently arranged.
In a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the GA author Freeman Wills Crofts, much hangs on the careful analysis of travel possibilities drawn from actual timetables in 1957, “when the events took place”. Alibis seem unshakeable and there are moments when the detectives almost give up hope of proving anything other than suicide. It’s only dogged investigation and constant testing of those alibis, examination of timetables and creative mental leaps which finally lead to the truth.
One of the joys of reading a book like this, in addition to a cracking mystery, is the wonderful glimpse the reader gets into the past. The many reissues of British GA crime novels allow a look at our country in times gone by, and in Tokyo Express the same is true of Japan. Post-WW2, the country had to do much reconstruction and by the 1950s it seemed to be going through a long process of modernisation. The traditional ways, from clothing to architecture and travel, were changing; and alongside this the book indicates that the country was suffering from massive political corruption. I believe this was an element Matsumoto felt very strongly about, and apparently he pioneered this angle in his crime fictions.
Tokyo Express is a wonderfully written, cleverly plotted and thoroughly engrossing mystery novel; full of red herrings, twisty officials, baffling alibis and engaging protagonists, it had me gripped from the opening to its entirely satisfying end. Matsumoto obviously hit the ground running with his first mystery, and I can only hope that the rest of his works are as good. If you love a good vintage crime novel, I thoroughly recommend this as the perfect summer read – it’s certainly one which will help you switch off beside the pool!
Seicho Matsumoto, Tokyo Express (Penguin Modern Classics, 2023). 978-0241439081, 149pp., paperback.
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