Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris)

Title:  Quiet Creature on the Corner
Author:  João Gilberto Noll
Translator:  Adam Morris
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2016)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 51 1

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl.  The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying.  Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness.  He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.

For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate.  There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda.  He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon  – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments.  The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged.  The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers  that are usually assigned by the passage of time.  Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.

I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.

Kurt let me hang it up.

“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.

The poem I was writing spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.

The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable.  João Gilberto Noll writes in  a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period,  – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience,  forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?

There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history.  And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Betty Boo by Claudia Piñeiro, Miranda France tr.

Title: Betty Boo

Author:   Claudia Piñeiro

Translator:   Miranda France

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press, London (2016)

ISBN: 978 1 908524 55 3

2

There are three epigraphs at the beginning of Betty Boo, the highly enjoyable mystery novel (her fourth to be translated into English) by Argentine author Claudia Piñeiro. One is a quote from Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night.

“The story goes on; it can go on; there are various possible conjectures; it’s still open; it merely gets interrupted. The investigation has no end; it cannot end. Someone should invent a new literary genre, paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued.”

The epigraph is a nod to the sense of unease (a sense that never materializes into the actual paranoia and fear Piñeiro valiantly tries but falls short of  conveying) that the murder of one of their own creates among the sheltered residents of  an exclusive neighborhood in Buenos Aires – where all who enter and exit the premises (guests, domestics, residents) are closely monitored at the gates. The victim is a rich and influential man and the murder scene staged to appear as a suicide. What makes the events newsworthy is that this man, Pedro Chazarreta, buried his wife five years before under equally suspicious circumstances. He had initially been, and in the eyes of the public remained, a chief suspect in her death.

The protagonist and, for the novel’s purposes, lead “investigator” is Nurit Iscar – the titular Betty Boo.  Her nickname is inspired by her physical resemblance to the 1920’s cartoon character.  Nurit is…  rather was… a successful mystery novelist dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine literature” up until five years ago (right around the time of the death of Chazarreta’s wife) when a disastrous affair with a married man, her subsequent divorce and a series of scathing reviews of her most recent novel led her to withdraw from the literary world.  That last novel had been a departure from the crime stories readers had come to expect from her.  She’d written a much more personal work – a love story based on her affair. Since its public rejection she has stopped writing her own material and survived financially by ghost writing the memoirs of society ladies with illusions of grandeur.  She is fifty-four and her two sons will soon be graduating from university.  She is not unhappy, but has allowed her creativity to become dormant. There is a hole in her life.  She is surrounded and sustained by a small group of women friends – all of whom understand this and want her to return to publishing her own work.

And so when her former lover approaches and asks her to write a series of columns on the Chazarreta murder for his newspaper Nurit, after some convincing, agrees.  She will move into a house in the gated community where the murder occurred.  From there she will observe and report on events from the inside, using the proximity to tap into the residents’ paranoia for her stories about the case.  As far as an angle goes, it’s a good one.

At the same newspaper Jaime Brena, a journalist who sat behind the crime desk for decades, has recently been replaced by a young, wet-behind-the-ears upstart who knows more about social media than about actual reporting. When a call comes about this latest turn in the Chazarreta case Brena grudgingly hands it over. And yet… old habits die-hard and he forms an alliance, a friendship even, with the Crime boy. They – Brena, the Crime boy and eventually Nurit – will come to pool their resources and together attempt to follow the trail of a murderer with a very specific list of victims.

Jaime Brena tidies his desk, gathers up his papers, switches off the computer then notices just as he’s about to go that the ruler with which he instructed the Crime boy to simulate his own throat-slashing is lying on the floor under his chair. Jaime Brena has had this ruler ever since he first came to El Tribuno. He has a tendency to form slightly fetishistic attachments to certain objects. He picks it up and puts it back in the drawer. Looking up, he sees that the Crime boy is still working at his desk, and he goes over to him. How’s it going? Fine, says the boy. I’m just finishing up. OK, I’ll see you tomorrow. Jaime Brena starts to walk away but after a few steps he turns back and says: Can I ask you something? Yes, of course, says the boy.Who would you like to be like? What? Says to boy. Who would you like to be like, who’s your role model, your favorite journalist? Ah, from here or anywhere? From here, kid, here, and in Crime, because if you’re going to write about Crime that’s where you need to look for your role model. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I got into Crime a bit by chance; my role models are in other areas. It shows, kid. Not to bring you down, but it shows.

Betty Boo is a better than good book. Piñeiro is a solid storyteller who avoids gimmicks and tricks and instead concentrates on the careful plotting, character development and psychological insight that distinguishes the best mystery writers.  Her plot reminds me a little bit of the British writer Anthony Horowitz (who wrote sequels to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond under the auspices of both the Doyle and Fletcher estates). Both authors explore issues and ideas, even politics, but only as far as it serves the story.  Their plots are meticulously constructed, built block by block like a case for the prosecution, and frequently stray into lurid (but not ridiculous) territory.

As for characters, Piñeiro has managed to populate Betty Boo with multi-generational cast – Nurit, her girlfriends and Brena are in their 50’s. Their thoughts and concerns ring true to their age, as do their actions.  And the same can be said for the younger characters, like the Crime boy and Nurit’s sons.  They possess the clichéd “arrogance of youth”, but their self-absorption makes them no less likeable. The dialogue is sharp and interesting.  Individual voices stand out.  Quite an accomplishment, since Piñeiro compresses and contains her dialogue within the same paragraph as the action, abstaining from the use of quotation marks. This simple, little stylistic tick transforms the rhythm of the text into the rapid patter of old pre-code Hollywood movies. These are wonderfully engaging characters who are fun to be around. Their conversations are genuinely interesting, not just for the information, but for their humor and warmth they convey.  

Claudia Piñeiro’s currently has three other novels translated into English.  All three are published by Bitter Lemon Press. None appear to be or have sequels.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Target In The Night by Richard Piglia, Sergio Waisman tr.

Title: Target In the Night

Author:   Ricardo Piglia

Translator:   Sergio Waisman

Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 941929 16 9

1

When Toni Durán, a handsome Puerto Rican-American, arrives in Madariaga, a small town in the Argentine Pampas, he definitely shakes things up.  He romances the beautiful twin daughters of the richest man in town, befriends the local Chinese waiter, charms all the gentry and, a few weeks later, turns up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night seems a straight-forward case of “find-the-murderer”, but soon becomes about much more than solving the mystery of Toni Durán’s death.

Luca Belladonna, along with his late brother Lucio, owned the town’s only factory which once employed most of the townspeople. Now the factory stands empty, production stopped by an economic downturn and the death of Lucio in a car crash.  Luca has become something of an eccentric, living in the crumbling building with an assistant, continuing to work on his inventions in hopes of re-opening for business. His red-haired twin sisters Ada and Sofia (who can’t help but remind readers of Bolaño’s Garmendia sisters) are beautiful and wild – “The sisters were like replicas, the symmetry between them was so similar it was almost sinister” – and local gossip has both girls engaged in a ménage à trois with Durán, who they met on a visit to the States.  He followed them back to Argentina with a suitcase full of money.  

The Belladonna patriarch is still alive, but estranged from Luca.  The siblings’ mothers (one for the boys and one for the girls) are both dead.  Piglia’s novel portrays the decaying aristocratic family and all that goes with it: betrayal, disillusion, archaic codes of honor, sexual deviance and the loss of the wealth which buttressed its illusions of grandeur through generations. He has, in short, clothed a Faulknerian tragedy in the guise of a detective novel.

By then the story had changed. No longer a Don Juan, no longer a fortune seeker who had come after two South American heiresses, he was now a new kind of traveler, an adventurer who trafficked in dirty money, a neutral smuggler who snuck dollars through customs using his North American passport and his elegant looks. He had a split personality, two faces, two backgrounds. It was impossible to reconcile the versions because the other, secret life attributed to him was always new and surprising. A seductive foreigner, an extrovert who revealed everything, but also a mysterious man with a dark side who fell for the Belladonna sisters and got lost in the whirlwind that followed.

The whole town participated in fine-tuning and improving the stories. The motives and the point of view changed, but not the character. The events themselves hadn’t actually changed, only how they were being perceived. There were no new facts, only different interpretations.

As every good reader knows, a murder needs an investigator.  Detective Croce, a Lear-like figure working from the brink of madness, is determined to discover the true killer and exonerate the scapegoat.  A man who has been falsely imprisoned by those who find an expedient solution to the case more politically beneficial than justice.  Emilio Renzi, a big city journalist who appears in a number of Piglia’s books and is a satisfactory (and satisfactorily cynical) foil provides the objective outsider’s view of events. They form a dynamic partnership – Renzi the superego to Croce’s ego.

Piglia’s work is both clever and unusual.  At first glance Target In the Night reads as if it were three or four stories, ideas even, mashed together into one. The transitions between scenes are fuzzy, making the plot difficult to follow at times.  The story doesn’t follow the narrative we expect and as a writer Piglia can come across as a bit schizophrenic.  But the writing, itself, flows beautifully and the threads sort themselves out by the end. And some of those scenes with the fuzzy transitions between them can be very funny. When Renzi visits Croce in an asylum he gets to know some of the inmates.

Renzi gave them a cigarette and the two men started smoking it right away, taking turns, standing near them. The fatter of the two broke a one-peso bill in half and gave half of it to the other for a drag of the cigarette. Every time they took a smoke they would give the other patient half of the bill, and when they exhaled they would take the other half of the bill back. They paid with half a bill, took a smoke, exhaled, accepted half of the bill, the other would smoke, blow out the smoke, they would pass the half-bill back, the other would smoke – and the cycle accelerated and went faster and faster as the cigarette was consumed…

Ricardo Piglia is an Argentine transplant who now currently teaches Latin American Literature at Princeton University. It might be worth noting that the Belladonna/Garmendia sisters coincidence isn’t the only Bolaño parallel to be found.  Piglia incorporates fictional footnotes into his text as well. And while Bolaño doesn’t own the patent on twins and footnotes, they might be something an Argentine author who isn’t specifically intent on paying homage might want to avoid. Sometimes, though, these glimpses of the familiar work in an author’s favor and add to the readers pleasure. Fortunately for the author, they do that here.

Target In the Night seems to be part of the ongoing trend towards the domestication of the crime novel. Crime/detective fiction is the one category which (seemingly) has managed to entirely escape the genre ghetto – skipping back and forth across the line between its sensationalist roots and literary aspirations. Latin American authors, in particular, seem to have the most fun with the fusion, injecting a bit more humor, experimental prose writing and unusual story structures into their endeavors. In fact, the defining characteristic of these existential crime novels seems to be exactly how little a satisfactory resolution of the crime actually matters to the overall trajectory of the story.

 

In for a Penny, In for a Pound: The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond

The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond (published by Melville House)

The Devil’s Home On Leave

How the Dead Live

I Was Dora Suarez

 

RaymondBundleSweeney Todd, the notorious barber of Fleet Street, first appeared in an 1846 Victorian Penny Dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance”.  Dreadfuls were cheap chapbooks, sold for a penny a piece (later reduced to half-pence, or Half Penny Dreadfuls) which churned out sensationalist serialized fiction for London’s newly literate mobs.

 In that first incarnation the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sent his victims to their deaths through a trapdoor rigged behind and beneath his barber chair.  Usually cause of death was from the broken neck or skull which occurred upon landing.  It was only the survivors of the fall who Todd would  “polish off” – slitting their throats with his straight razor.  The remains were then taken to a Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a nearby meat pie shop, by means of a connecting tunnel.  The bodies were ground up and used as pie-filling in pastries sold to an unsuspecting public.

History has shown that what is sensational and lurid to one generation becomes humdrum to the next.  Over time Sweeney Todd went from being a villain to the hero or, more accurately, anti-hero. The violence escalated and he began slitting all his victims’ jugulars, the trap door merely an expedient means of conveying the bodies into the basement.  Originally tried and hanged for his crimes, in later versions (notably Sondheim’s 1979 musical adaptation) Todd is killed by his own razor.  Even Mrs. Lovett’s fate became more violent – poison is replaced by being burned alive.

Perhaps the most disturbing escalation is that of Todd’s assistant Toby Ragg. In “The String of Pearls” Toby is a young man banished to an asylum by Todd & Mrs. Lovett when he begins to feel remorse for the his part in the murders. He appears at the end to testify against Todd and then goes on to lead a peaceful life as a domestic servant. Skip forward 161 years to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation and Ragg has evolved into a young orphan boy who loves Mrs. Lovett as a mother – making her betrayal all the more horrifying when she conspires with Todd to kill the child.  Ragg escapes and returns in the final scene to slit Todd’s throat as revenge for Todd’s murdering  Mrs. Lovett.

This long and convoluted introduction has a point.  Derek Raymond, author of the five novels that make up The Factory series, is by many considered the father of British crime noir. But Raymond is also very much a descendant of those penny dreadful authors of the 19th century.  His writing relies on the same formula  of sensationalism, horror and mawkish sentiment.  He explores the same genres – detective stories, gothic horror and gore – which made the dreadfuls popular among young boys.  Yes, he was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and the noir films and novels of the 40’s & 50’s – but Derrick Raymond cast a wider net than some give him credit for. Not just quoting (and the books contain a surprising amount of literary quotes), but in a sense paying homage to Dickens and a host of lesser known authors from the Victorian period.

Each Factory novel describes a case solved by the unnamed, maverick detective in A14, the Unexplained Deaths department of a London police station nicknamed the Factory.  They feature a cast of reoccurring characters: the unnamed detective (of course), his superior “the Voice” and his nemesis Inspector Bowman in Important Crimes. On the whole, the unnamed detective is a loner in the tradition of hard-boiled literature, but manages to find a few allies who share his desire to find justice for the dead.  The Devil’s Home On Leave, How the Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez are the middle three books of the series.   The Devil’s Home On Leave, the most conventional and least interesting of the three, investigates a contract killing and delves into the criminal underworld of 1980’s London.  How the Dead Live is a gothic love story complete with a decaying mansion, lovers tragically separated.  The plot (tweaked for the 20th century) and prose style are in the vein of Mary Shelley or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fourth book – the last to be published during the author’s lifetime – is the most contemporary in that the major plot points rely most heavily on current events. The victim, the titular Dora Suerez, is dying of AIDS at the time of her murder.

These novels – romances if we call them what they are – were intended for male consumption.  Like Chandler’s LA noir novels and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour there exists a clean line between good and evil. The villains have no redeeming qualities.  The women are madonna’s or whores.  The heroes are seldom rewarded, or even respected, for doing what is right.  There is a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment involved.  Male readers relate to the protagonists because they want to be like them: honorable and good. Modern knights-errant looking to protect the vulnerable.  The fact that these heroes are imperfect and damaged only makes them more identifiable, and the fantasy more attainable.

Raymond also trades in darker fantasies. One of his many careers before settling on writing was as a pornographer. The graphic nature of the physical and sexual violence increases with each book, becomes more literal and less literary, so that by the time we’ve reached the opening scenes of I Was Dora Suarez (the fourth book in the series) the descriptions of the murders convey the disturbing lurid voyeuristic fetishism of a snuff film or torture porn. In those first few pages the killer brutally dismembers his victim, ejaculates into her wounds and licks up her blood.  He defecates in the corner of the room.

Bowman said:’Why do so many of them feel they have to do that?’

‘It’s egoism and overexcitement,’ I sad. ‘It’s part of a very complicated way of getting your rocks off  it’s also like someone illiterate signing some document with an X.’

He stirred the stool with the tip of his Regent Street boot. ‘What chance do you think you’ve got, catching him?’

I said, ‘I’ll get him.’

‘We think so, too, said Bowman. ‘but don’t think we’re going to do you any out-of-the-way favours.’

‘I’ll find my own way of getting any help I need,’ I said, ‘and as for favours, you may find htat by putting me on this you won’t have done yourself any.’ I added: ‘Just fuck off now, Charlie, will you? I want to be on my own.’

No detail is left to the imagination.  As each layer of the mystery is peeled back events become more and more sordid.  It starts to feel as if a line is being crossed, the one that Val McDermid discussed in a 2010 interview. “Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.”

The author redeems himself, barely. Readers, through the detective, come to know the victims intimately.  And while the perpetrators of violence have motives – those motives are stated rather than explored.  It is how the victims came under the purview of Unexplained Deaths that Raymond truly cares about.  How the timeline of their lives came to converge with their murderer’s at the moments of their deaths.  In How the Dead Live we gather information through conversations the unnamed detective has with the victim’s husband; in I Was Dora Suarez we read excerpts from Dora’s journal. The dead are treated with respect, empathy and kindness despite the violent circumstances of their deaths.

 ‘…However, my dead remarry in the air I breathe, invisible yet solid, reliving their situations in this wet house – a calm, upright spirit is the one response to evil, and that is our fight.

‘At least I know now what I have lost here I can never lose again.

‘Oh God, if I had been born stupid I would have gone to my death like an ox and been eaten for my meat by my tormentors without ever knowing or caring why.’

Empathy and some interesting stylistic innovations are the marks of this author’s work.  One of the most unusual and effective trick is the way Raymond incorporates cockney rhyming or “Geezer” slang into his characters’ dialogue. Criminals “do bird” in prison.  Snitches are “grasses”. The “Factory” is another name for the police station. To an American reader it’s like a foreign language – completely disarming.  The story could just as easily exist in the recent past or a distant and gritty dystopian future.  The novels are, in fact, set during Margaret Thatcher’s London – something not immediately apparent based on, nor particularly relevant to, most of what takes place.

The choice to leave the two central characters (the unnamed detective and his superior, the Voice), nameless adds to the feeling of being outside of time.  It  reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s novel The Investigation. Perhaps the anonymity is meant, as it was in Claudel’s novel, to express some kind of post-modern nihilism on the part of the author?  Or maybe Raymond was just bad at coming up with names?

Most likely the latter.  For as enjoyable as they are, the Factory novels are every bit as campy, sentimental and contrived as those early 19th century Dreadfuls. The unnamed detective, in particular, can only be described as emotionally overwrought – his thoughts and dialogue expressed in deep purple prose. The tragedy in his back story is extravagant: a mentally deranged wife in an asylum for killing their only daughter; a partner who, wounded in the line of duty, is now paralyzed and sidelined; regular conflicts with fellow officers more concerned with personal glory and career advancement than justice for the dead.

I haven’t picked up the final book of the series, Dead Man Upright, yet.  And I’m not sure if I will. It was published posthumously, and so like all posthumous works you can’t help but wonder what level of completion it was left in by the author. I’m also more worried about what Raymond and fate have in store for the detective than I like to admit.  I don’t hold out much hope for his making a good end.  He’s too emotionally raw for the work he does. Too isolated from society.  He doesn’t seem to have the sense to buffer himself with alcohol and dames and wisecracks like his American counterparts. No, I don’t believe this series will end well for anyone.  In fact I’d wager complete scorched-earth devastation taking place in the final chapter.  Emotional subtlety – subtlety of any kind if we are being honest – is not Derek Raymond’s strong suit.

The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi (Audio)

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.

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