Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tattoo Murder Case is an extremely clever mystery, populated with psychologically complex characters and convoluted plot lines. But I found that the most interesting aspect of the book by far was its setting: occupied Japan. A time when, suddenly, – after 8000 years of history, tradition and believing that their Emperor was a god – Japan became a democracy. Poof! Just like that an entire society is transformed. Traditions are set aside, American G.I.’s pop-up like dandelions, and Western clothes (not to mention: values) are adopted by all. Kazuo Ishiguro explored this to a certain extent in his novel An Artist of the Floating World. While less introspective and dramatic, Akimitsu Takagi’s recreation of post-WWII Tokyo is just as realistic. This book was written in 1948, so it must have been all too easy for the author to reconstruct the Japan in which he lived.
The main protagonist of The Tattoo Murder Case is Kenzo Matsushita, a young doctor recently returned from the war in the Philippines. He cuts a sad (and strangely familiar) figure – a veteran who has returned home alive, but with no direction. He lives in the bachelor room at his elder brother’s home, is working on a thesis that has hit a dead-end and has no love life to speak of. But he’s a likeable loser. The book begins with Kenzo attending the annual meeting of an elite tattoo society as research towards his studies to become a forensic doctor. There he meets a beautiful, dissolute young woman with a stunning full-body tattoo. Inexplicably, she seduces him and they begin an affair. Within a few chapters that woman is dead. Her corpse dismembered. It is Kenzo who discovers the remains – her head, lower arms and legs – in a room locked from the inside. Her tattoo covered torso is nowhere to be found.
The reader is drawn, along with Kenzo, into the tragic history of the three cursed Nomura siblings – each tattooed by their gifted father in the Irezumi style. At its foundation, The Tattoo Murder Case is a hard-boiled detective story (think Raymond Chandler or James Chandler) with all the tropes of the genre. But Takagi takes full advantage of his exotic locale and its rich history. Kenzo partners with his elder brother, the famed Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, in order to solve the case. They fail, with dire consequences to those around them. As the body count multiplies, Kenzo asks an old schoolmate – a Holmesian genius named Kyosuke Kamizu – to take on the puzzle.
The Tattoo Murder Case was the first novel of the Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi, who went on to write several other books in the crime genre. I haven’t read any of his other work, so perhaps he got better with age. While I enjoyed this book in a general way, it’s disconcerting how Takagi threw in every stereotype that was available to him.
- A locked room mystery.
- A femme fatale who seeks the hero’s help, only to end up dead. (She’s even a gangster’s moll!)
- A hardened Detective Chief Inspector (Kenzo’s brother)
- The character of Kenzo Matsushita, who plays the bumbling Watson to his friend Kamizu’s Sherlock.
And let’s take a second to discuss Kyosuke Kamizu, who drops out of the sky seemingly just to solve the case. The introduction of his character in Chapter 40 (-ish) felt like a hail Mary desperately thrown by the author in order to move the book to some kind of conclusion. (Because, likeable or no, Kenzo sure as hell didn’t possess to facilities to solve the mystery).
What saves this book – and makes me want to explore more of Akimitsu Takagi’s writing – is that all the characters are remarkably well-developed. The occupied Japan in which they live is described in vivid detail without being overdone. And while the solution to the mystery strains the boundaries of believability – it does not cross them. All in all, it’s a killer (forgive the pun) combination that will leave most readers satisfied. Or, at the very least, feeling they haven’t completely wasted 12 hours of their time.
The Tattoo Murder Case is available in audio from Iambik.com. Unfortunately, the narrator isn’t the best – his voice would have been better suited to something set in the American mid-West than Tokyo, Japan. I was also incredibly disappointed in his inability to create distinctive individual voices for the characters, which made it difficult to determine who was saying what in the early chapters. But have you ever noticed how, with most audio books, your ear adjusts to the narrator’s voice? The Tattoo Murder Case is no exception. And while the narrator lacks inspiration, he does give a clear and well-modulated reading of the text. That, and the low cost to download this book, allows me to cut him some slack.
The print edition is available through Soho Press.