Monday, July 11, 2011



"Life is like a masked ball. All men and women live their lives wearing masks"
"Masked Ball"

Maybe I should think about actually coming up with original post titles; finding appropiate titles/quotes for everything is getting more difficult everytime...

Today a writer whose work is actually available in English. Takagi Akimitsu's Shisei Satsujin Jiken ("The Tattoo Murder Case") is one of the best locked room mysteries in Japanese detective fiction history and one that everyone should have read. This was Takagi's debut work in 1948 and he followed with many other novels and I think a total of three of his novels have been translated in English.

Noumen Satsujin Jiken ("The Nou Mask Murder Case") is Takagi's second novel, published one year after Shisei Satsujin Jiken. The novels starts with strange things are happening in the Chizui mansion. One night, a person was seen walking around the mansion wearing the cursed Hannya mask (from Noh theater), an item in the possession of the Chizui family for many, many years. Young scientist Yanagi has been residing in the Chizui mansion ever since he came back from the war and he is asked by the head of the Chizui family to find someone to investigate the case. Yanagi's friend, Takagi Akimitsu, a detective fiction critic / aspiring writer (who may or may not be the same person as the writer of this novel) happens to be staying in the neighbourhood on a holiday and is thus asked to investigate this case, but tragedy strikes pretty much immediately after Takagi is hired: the head of the Chizui mansion is found dead, in his study which was locked from the inside. And besides his dead body lies the cursed Hannya mask. Was it just a normal heart attack, or was he the victim of something more sinister? And who was the person who called the undertaker and asked for three coffins...?

A locked room mystery, written by Takagi Akimitsu. A novel that won the Japanese Detective Writers Assocation Price? Expectations were high. Naturally.And the novel starts out pretty good too; the curse of the Hannya mask, the strange members of the Chizui family, the locked room mystery, it reminded me of Takagi's previous novel. And that's never a bad thing.

But the end was... quite horrible. Plot devices were taken from other, famous Western novels (though the locked room itself is an original trick, as far as I know, but not as awesome as that of Shisei Satsujin Jiken) and Takagi actually spoils the ending of two or three books in this story. Yes, Takagi, I understand you're a fan of Van Dine, but I do not feel any urge to pick The Bisshop Murder Case any time soon now. Neither Christie's The Murder on Roger Ackroyd, if I hadn't read it already. References to other detective novels are great, but never ever should you touch upon the main plot twists in the novel (at least not in a way that spoils it to people who haven't read them yet).

Takagi Akimitsu and Yokomizo Seishi's orthodox detectives pretty debuted around the same time and both writers made use of references to Japanese culture, so in my mind a connection is made rather quickly. So I was hoping that Takagi's Shisei Satsujin Jiken / Noumen Satsujin Jiken would be as strong a duo as Yokomizo's Honjin Satsujin Jiken / Chouchou Satsujin Jiken, but Noumen Satsujin Jiken is obviously the weak link here. Actually, these two couples have quite some parallels, but I'd be entering spoiler-heavy areas then.

This book is probably historically important, as it is part of the post-war orthodox boom in Japanese detective fiction, but as a novel on its own, it's pretty weak, spoiling too much and borrowing a bit too much of other novels. The locked room itself is original, as far as I know, but not nearly as impressive as in Takagi's previous book, and almost disappointing.
Original Japanese title(s): 高木彬光 『能面殺人事件』


  1. I was pondering whether to start with this book or 人形はなぜ殺される and was already unsure about Noumen since I've already read that it spoils 2 or 3 western classics from which I've read 1 so far... and including this review, I guess I'll start with Ningyou wa naze korosareru as the revised edition of Shisei Satsujin Jiken (how it's actually read if I'm not mistaken) is out of print at the moment. Plus: Nikaidou Reito writes that Ningyou is his favorite Takagi novel :D And I've seen several reviewers on the net saying "If there's one work of Japanese detective fiction I want to be read abroad, it's this one."

  2. Oops, seems you're right. I'm so used to reading 刺青 as irezumi in normal life that I had never even considered the possibility of a on-reading ^_~ Changed it now!

  3. It's a pity that Soho Press stopped after translating just one of his orthodox detective stories, and the other books they publishes aren't exactly filling me with the excitement and curiosity needed to pick them up.

  4. I've read a Dutch translation of Takagi's Mikkokusha (De Zaak Segawa, released as The Informer in the US), but I honestly can't remember a thing of it. I think it lies somewhere between an orthodox and social school novel.