When the body of a tattooed woman he’s secretly involved with turns up hacked to pieces, Kenzo Matsushita decides to play amateur detective and help his brother, the Chief of Police, solve the case. Despite his bumbling around, I initially believed he’d be the one to get to the bottom of the case. However, he turned out to be just a stand-in for the reader, which would be perfectly acceptable except for the fact that Kenzo is sometimes so naïve and jumps to conclusions so easily you can’t help but be frustrated with him.
The true amateur detective, the Boy Genius (a nickname he hates), is an old schoolmate of Kenzo’s–Kyosuke Kamizu, who uses his theory of criminal economics to solve the murder. He is quite the fascinating character, and it is unfortunate that he is only present for the final third of the book. I love the boy genius trope, which is quite common in Japanese crime fiction, from Edogawa Ranpo’s Kogoro Akechi to Seishi Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi (that’s a lot of Ks).
The original investigation has been going on for a few months and has stagnated by the time Kyosuke even enters the story. We first experience the events as they happen, then we suffer through Kenzo’s investigative attempts, and finally, we have Kyosuke interviewing suspects and debating possible solutions before the final reveal. There are a lot of layers to the mystery and the various events add up in the end, but the multiple renditions can be frustrating especially because Kenzo is incredibly clueless.
Regardless of the likeability of some of the characters (read Kenzo), the novel is really good. The translation is excellent. Most relevant terms are retained in Japanese, which allows for better immersion into the world. The mystique around the tattoos and their mythology is built beautifully. Akimitsu Takagi researched the industry in great detail and was a photographer and real-life witness to the tattoo scene in post-war Japan. His photographs from that time are considered a treasure trove of art history and have recently been published as a book.
Fans of classic Japanese murder mysteries like Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada and The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo will no doubt enjoy this book. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars, only because we get too much of Kenzo and not enough of Kyosuke.
Thank you NetGalley and Pushkin Press for sending this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.