My thanks to Penguin Press UK and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Tokyo Express is a Japanese mystery/detective novel by Seichō Matsumoto, first published in 1958 and in this version, translated by Jesse Kirkwood. Having only read two of Seishi Yokomizo’s Kindaichi mysteries so far, when this showed up on NetGalley, I was keen to give it a try, and while it turned out quite different from the usual ‘mystery’ novel, I found it to be a very enjoyable one indeed.
After a short opening chapter, the significance of most of the happenings of which we realise only later, we find ourselves on Kashii Beach in Fukuoka where two bodies are found, a man in western clothes and a young woman in a kimono, both of whom have consumed arsenic. Everything seems to point to a ‘love’ suicide, as the persons involved had been seen boarding a train together at Tokyo station and now some days later the bodies have been found side-by-side. But seasoned detective Jūtarō Torigai, of the local police is not entirely convinced, and begins investigating the possible course of events, which if anything, only deepens his suspicions that something doesn’t quite fit. Then one day, Torigai has a visitor, a young colleague from the Tokyo police, Kiichi Mihara, who shares his suspicions. With inputs from Torigai, Mihara begins to investigate the matter, with support from his immediate superior and soon, others up the hierarchy as well. The puzzle before Mihara is no easy one, and us readers go along for the ride as he works at it from different angles, trying to decipher what exactly happened that night at Kashii Beach.
Tokyo Express is a short and very crisp book, rather different from the usual order of mysteries that I have read in that here our focus is almost entirely Inspector Mihara as he doggedly pursues the rather complex puzzle before him. More than a whodunit, since we do pretty much know ‘who’ early on, our focus is on how ‘it’ was done (if indeed there was an ‘it’), and how the person in question could have been at the scene of the crime when there’s a rather iron clad alibi with several witnesses placing them elsewhere. Mihara does interview the suspect and several witnesses, but they never take centre stage, nor do we go deeper into their personalities nor indeed those of the detectives themselves—the book belongs almost solely to Mihara and the puzzle. This is no simple puzzle, though; rather one that keeps us readers entirely engaged. Mihara is pitted against a clever adversary, and while there is no direct battle of wits, there is an indirect one, with the culprit having woven a strong, seemingly unbreakable web, such that it proves hard for Mihara to find the tiniest of chinks. One reads on excitedly to see whether such a chink exists and whether and how Mihara manages to break it. Those looking for a ‘mystery’ needn’t be disappointed either, for there are some surprises in the solution as well.
The puzzle that Mihara must solve is around railway lines and timetables, and of course the places where the suspect ought to have been and where they have actually proved themselves to be. His having to work though various railway routes and lines, timings, and stops was something I found especially fun since one of the few programmes I watch on TV these days is something called Japan Hour, on which one of the programmes featured is trips on local train lines in Japan where the hosts try to find original spots to visit. So, all the discussion and exploration of mainlines and local lines felt familiar territory. I think the book does carry a map and segments from the timetables but this was a bit muddled in the ARC.
Naturally, only having read a couple of Seishi Yokomizo’s books, that was the only point of comparison I had for Japanese mystery fiction. The first thing I noticed was while Tokyo Express is set only around a decade after the two Yokomizo books I’d read (set in the mid-1940s), this one feels more modern-day, closer in time to where we are with Japan’s well laid out and busy railway system, Tokyo with its coffee shops and trams, and government offices with clandestine dealings with businesses and corruption. Very different from Yokomizo’s isolated villages, rife with superstition and cut off in a sense from city life and ways. Yokomizo of course, also gives us a closer look at the people involved.
Both the detectives we come in the book across are likeable—whether it is the young, energetic and intelligent Mihara or the older, somewhat self-deprecating Torigai who first suspects that all is not as seems to the eye. Neither of them like more modern detective fiction carry any great burdens, and I kind of liked having a book that was focused on the puzzle rather than the people for a change. Torigai is of course weighed down by past mistakes and long experience while Mihara is unsurprisingly more spirited. I wish Torigai had had more of a role in the investigation, though, since I’d enjoyed seeing him work on the case initially and examine things he thought seemed wrong. But it was good to see that whether it was the local police or those in Tokyo, none was content to simply take the matter at face value and move on. All wanted to find the truth.
Fast moving, precise and with a very interesting puzzle at its centre, this was a book I very much enjoyed reading, and which made me want to explore more of Matsumoto’s books.
(copy reviewed: Kindle ARC; Penguin Classics, 2022; release date: 30 June 2022)