Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Case of the Photo Finish

It seems his skin was sweet as mango, 
when last I held him to my breast
"Grim Fandango"

Never been to Kagoshima even though I lived relatively close there for a while...

Disclosure: I translated Shimada's 1985 short story The Running Dead. Different series though!

It's very early in the morning, before sunrise, when a writer decides to step out on his balcony again and indulge in a rather bad habit of his: spying on people. He has a look inside other apartments with his binoculars and he thinks he's lucky when he finds a half-open bathroom window, and inside he sees a woman in her bath tub. A little while later though, he realizes the woman hasn't moved at all and that she's kept her window open despite the cold. Eventually, the body does move, only to reveal a horrible sight: the woman's face has been torn off. The writer makes an anonymous call to the police, who find the dead woman in the tub. Even the veterans among the team had never seen someone with the skin torn off the face and the eyeballs removed. The victim is Chizuru, who worked as a companion at a night club. During the investigation into Chizuru's movements on the night of her murder however, they stumble upon a great mystery: around the estimated time of her death, she was also witnessed in the Hayabusa Night Train from Tokyo to Kagoshima. Several witnesses had seen her on that train that left on the evening of her death, and some even saw her after the time of her murder. Was it her ghost that took the Hayabusa or did her body somehow teleport from a riding train back into her apartment? It's Inspector Yoshiki Takeshi who has to make sense out of this in Shimada Souji's 1984 novel Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe ("The Night Express Hayabusa -The 1/60 Second Wall).

Earlier I have reviewed Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin ("The Izumo Legend 7/8 Murder", 1984) and Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin ("The Northern Yuzuru 2/3 Murder", 1985) on this blog, which were respectivally the second and third novel to feature the character of Yoshiki Takeshi, a Tokyo-based police detective. This series was initially conceived as Shimada's take on the so-called travel mystery, a sub-genre that focuses on, obviously, travel. The genre is strongly associated with trains and brilliantly fabricated alibis that make full use of complex railway schedules and other characteristics of the subgenre include the stories often being set in popular tourist destination/region outside the capital Tokyo and involving references to local habits, folklore and legends. Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe was the first novel in this series, but yep, I never read things in order. The series is quite succesful, having about 15 novels with the latest being released in 2019, though I am not sure whether later Yoshiki novels are also written to invoke the travel mystery genre.

Though the first pages of this book seem to invoke Edogawa Rampo more! The discovery of the horribly mutilated victim could have come right out of a Rampo story, with its theme of sexual voyeurism which ends in the discovery of a murder victim. It's a technique Rampo used a lot in his stories, and you'd almost expect the foe of this villain to be some kind of serial killer with a crazy name like The Magician, The Dwarf or The One-Eyed Clown. Once the intitial horror has passed though, you're confronted with a familiar sight in mystery fiction: the unrecognizable corpse. The story's main mystery revolves around the question of how the victim Chizuru could have been seen by multiple people in the Hayabusa Night Express, even after her estimated time of death, while her body was back in Tokyo lying in her bath tub in the early hours of the day. Readers are of course likely to immediately become suspicious of the identity of the corpse, but Shimada of course knows the familiar trope and doesn't play this one straight, and it can be quite tricky to figure out what's really going on here. The reason for the skinned face is quite ingenious actually, and perhaps one of the better ideas of this novel.

While the police is investigating Chizuru's private life and the men with whom she had affairs, it is discovered that Chizuru was seen on the Hayabusa express to Kagoshima (the other side of the country) on the night of her murder and some even saw her leave the train. And it aren't just eyewitnesses: people on the train spoke with her, and one of them even took a picture of the beautiful woman (hence the title The 1/60 Second Wall). The mystery of who this Chizuru was, whether she was the real one and or a fake and the connection to the dead body in the tub back in Tokyo is what drives the plot of this book... in theory, though a lot of time is actually spent by Yoshiki to just find out more about Chizuru, so he also travels to her home town to learn more about her family and life before she moved to Tokyo on her own. It results in a mystery novel that at one hand does have an alluring problem of a victim who is seen alive in a train while the medical records say she was dead at that time, but the narrative seems to not dwell on this too much: rather than really proposing new theories or going over time schedules to see how it could be done, Yoshiki spends more time chasing after more 'tangible' leads like the men in Chizuru's life and her estranged family, which might be more realistic, but it weakens the 'ghostly' part of the story a bit. In the end, it never felt like the book really managed to sell the problem of how Chizuru could be at two places at the same time, both alive and dead, as the core mystery. It just felt like Yoshiki going here and there asking questions about the victim's past, rather than about the current situation.

Ultimately, a tricky plot is unveiled of course that manages to explain everything. While the underlying concepts might sound familiar, the execution is done well, using a lot of misdirection and the use of the train theme to create a good variant on the idea and to make the mystery of the dead and alive Chizuru possible. The plot does have to take a few shortcurts to become possible though, which means that the motives for some people to act in certain ways to allow the mystery to come alive, feel a bit underdeveloped, or at least not very convincing at this point. One character in particular just feels like a walking plot device, doing things solely so the mystery can be constructed. And it's perhaps I just happened to pick these specific novels these last few years, but the writing of the women in the last few Shimada novels I have read all have a distinctly negative undertone. It does kinda undermine the core mystery plot I think, because I think the ideas how this and that were done to create a particular mystery and the clues leading up to the solution are okay, but then the characters, and especially the women, have to act in certain, often forced ways to make that mystery possible.

At the end of my post on Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin, I wrote "I will probably read the first Yoshiki Takeshi novel first before I decide whether I'll read more of this series," but to be honest, I still don't know whether I will continue. Shindai Tokkyuu Hayabusa -  1/60 no Kabe is a perfectly passable travel mystery that has a few really good ideas, but at times it also felt it focused on parts of the story I myself didn't find as interesting as other parts, so it didn't quite manage to win me over to think of it as a must-read. There are some other novels in this series that appear to be fan favorites, so I might try those in the future, but for the moment, I think I'll take a break with this series and be content with having the first three novels.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『寝台特急「はやぶさ」1/60秒の壁』


  1. Thanks for the review, and I confess the murder sounds somewhat too brutal and perverse for my taste... 😓 I do, however, have 2 novels by Shimada sitting on my shelf, awaiting reading: the English translation of 斜め屋敷の犯罪, and the Chinese translation of 鳥居の密室. I think I'll start on the latter, and leave the former as the best-for-last.

    Incidentally, I ordered yet another stack of Chinese and Japanese mystery novels, which is bobbing its way towards me! However, I forgot to include Ishimochi Asami's 扉は閉ざされたまま in my basket before checking out. 😒 Just wondering if you have come across this novel?

    But I did snap up a freshly released copy of Kurachi Jun's 星降り山荘の殺人! 🤩🥳

    1. 扉は閉ざされたまま is a title I have heard of, and I think I will pick it up one day, but I keep getting other books first ^^' And have fun with 星降り山荘の殺人! I read the first Nekomaru-sempai book a few weeks back by the way, a short story collection. Was a fun book, but I can't imagine how he'd work in a novel-length story, so guess I'll have to get 過ぎ行く風はみどり色 myself one of these days :D

  2. Yes, I had the same problem with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. It had a brilliant setup and solution, but everything in between was just the two detectives running around asking questions about the victim. I still want to read this book just for the ingenuity you're referring to.

    I'm glad you can still review books by authors you have translated previously. I'm always curious about the next Shimada/Ayatsuji/Imamura release in Japan, and this one of the only places in English to learn about them

    1. Yeah, I do always add a disclosure message nowadays that I have worked on their work, but I still discuss them!