Friday, October 22, 2021

The Secret of the Lost Tunnel

"The train had already begun to move as Holmes spoke. Glancing back, I saw a tall man pushing his way furiously through the crowd, and waving his hand as if he desired to have the train stopped. It was too late, however, for we were rapidly gathering momentum, and an instant later had shot clear of the station"
"The Final Problem"

I find traveling by train soooo relaxing, though I guess some countries don't really have a train culture.

It's the year 1879. After the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan for foreign relations, the immediate focus of the new Japanese government was on modernization and industralization of the country, and one of its pillars to connect the whole country and consolidate the central government's power was of course a railway network. As the dirctor of the Railway Board, Inoue Masaharu is responsible for laying this network of lifelines, and the project that is currently on top of the priority list is the railway tunnel through the mountain Ousakayama: this tunnel will connect former capital Kyoto to Ootsu. The project is also a matter of honor. Up until now, all the major railway projects in Japan were led by foreign engineers from countries like Great Britain and the United States, but this tunnel will be the first major railway project completely planned and designed by Japanese engineers, which will prove that Japan is ready to stand on its own feet. However, several incidents have been happening at the tunneling site: rocks falling from the mountain, measurements to ensure they're tunneling at the correct angle being changed, faulty material popping up or materials missing and there's even an incident with a supplier who fell of a train on his way back from the tunneling site. Worried that these incidents are an attempt to sabotage the project, Inoue decides to hire Kusakabe, a former policeman back when Tokyo was still called Edo. Kusakabe is reluctant at first, because he suspects the only reason why Inoue doesn't call the actual police is because of old rivalries from before the Meiji Restoration still being kept alive through political games, but he gives in and travels to the site accompanied by his Watson, engineer-in-training Onodera. It appears there are a lot of people who would like this project to fail: from other government departments who want the Railway Board's budget to the local people who will lose their jobs due to the railway. Things are murkier than Kusakabe had initially expected, so he decides to give the matter a serious look in Yamamoto Kouji's 2017 novel Kaika Tetsudou Tantei, which also bears the English title The Detective of Meiji Period Railway on the cover.

If you travel to Japan now, you realize that trains are still an important part of Japan as a country, not just as a vital lifeline, but also as part of the culture. This is also reflected in Japanese mystery fiction, where trains are a very common sight, sometimes revolving around iron-clad alibis that make brilliant use of time schedules, sometimes focusing on other related elements ranging from ekiben (lunch boxes with local specialties), the layout of stations, the morning rush and much more than I can name. However, Yamamoto Kouji, who works at a railway company, however interestingly doesn't write about the modern day railway in Japan, but about its past with The Detective of Meiji Period Railway. Most of Yamamoto's novels are mystery stories in a historical setting (Edo period) that predate railways, but with this novel, he decided to look at the earliest days of the Japanese railway network, which is a highly original theme. 

If you're into history especially, this book is really interesting. It genuinely presents the Japanese railway network as the focal theme of the book, and looks at it from various angles. Inoue for example suspects there's a political motive behind the sabotaging of the project, putting the railway network in a 'big history' context about the various parties involved with the Meiji Restoration. At the same time, the book also looks at the railway as an element that juxtaposes Japan and the West, as something that Japan needs to master in order to become a player on the international scene, while foreign powers wish to use the railway to assert their superiority over Japan. And as the investigation continues, we also look at the railway at a smaller level, focusing on people who once earned a living by transporting people and goods across water and who are now losing their jobs, to people who are now able to travel across Japan more swiftly which can sometimes even save lives. The manner in which The Detective of Meiji Period Railway presents trains and a railway network as something new in society, all the changes it brings and how that can lead to crime is highly entertaining. It does help if you have rudimentary knowledge about political/sociological/economical circumstances around that time for the details, but I think that even without that, you can enjoy this as a historical mystery about trains.

The core mystery plot feels a bit like a Holmesian adventure, which is fitting considering the time period of course. Don't expect a Queen-like densely clewed puzzler, or mystifying impossible situations: it's more about Kusakabe and Onodera poking around, stumbling upon some fact that may or may not be relevant and other incidents occuring that push the story forward. A lot happens between the first and final pages of this book, but not everything is actually directly connected to the problem of the sabotage and like a lot of Holmes' adventures, the story feels a bit 'open', making it seem like anyone could've done it, and that you're just there for the ride to see what did actually happen. Ultimately, an interesting plot is revealed and we see some events connecting to others in unexpected ways, but I think the merits of this book as a mystery lie more on the historical setting and its focus on railways, than on specifically the manner in which this story has been plotted.

Strangely enough, the book does feel a bit... cramped? The story is about railways, but most of the story is set just around the tunneling site, and the town nearby, so there's not really a lot of travelling by train done here, and when it occurs, it's never actually shown in detail. This is really a railway mystery, not a train mystery. Most of the important events also play outside or around the half-finished tunnel, so in that regards, it feels more open than you'd expect from a railway mystery (not just inside a train), but at the same, it's less about the connection between various/multiple locations.

So if the topic of the history of the railway in Japan appeals to you, Kaika Tetsudou Tantei (The Detective of Meiji Period Railway) is a must-read, as it brings a rather fascinating story that really focuses on what the railway really means for a modernizing society and uses those changes to bring an interesting tale of mystery. In terms of writing, it's perhaps closer to the adventure-like stories of Sherlock Holmes, so don't expect minute-perfect alibi tricks that use twenty train lines to make the impossible possible or super complex plotting, but it keeps the reader entertained from the start with lots of incidents happening and also a surprisingly broad (economical/sociological/political) look at the Japanese railways.

Original Japanese title(s):  山本巧次『開化鉄道探偵』


  1. Thanks for the review, though this sounds like one I might pass over. I’m not overly fond of mysteries involving timetables and alibis, and in any case this title sounds like an adventure rather than a puzzle. 😐

    On a positive note, I managed to find copies of Chinese translations of Ayatsuji Yukito’s 殺人方程式 series. I can only hope the sellers despatch the right copies—and I don’t end up with some promotional anime magazine instead! 😔 I also added a few Chinese mystery novels into my purchase basket. 😁

    Incidentally, it seems like one Japanese author whose works are getting translated into Chinese is Mitsuda Shinzou. Existing translations of his 刀城言耶シリーズ are getting a reboot, with new covers. 🤩 The latest novel entry in this series, 碆霊の如き祀るもの, has also been translated. And titles from 家シリーズ and 物理波矢多シリーズ are being translated. Do you happen to know if these series, especially 黒面の狐, are puzzle mysteries? 🧐

    1. Oh cool, I read 碆霊の如き祀るもの a while back (review scheduled for... end of the year), and it was another fun one! I haven't read any of Mitsuda's other series though, so I can't comment on them. 黒面の狐 at least is categorized on its Wikipedia page as a detective/horror novel, and the book also ranked into several of the annual mystery rankings, so it's not a pure horror novel at least!

    2. Will look forward to your review of 碆霊の如き祀るもの! Is 黒面の狐 on your TBR?

  2. This looks like a neat novel. I do prefer mystery-focused mystery novels, but I've been fascinated by railways and their histories since I was a little kid, so this one'll go on my list for sure.

    1. Oh, you'll absolutely love this one then. And the sequel probably but I haven't read that one yet :P