The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011) is a made-for-television film version of Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken (1991) by Keigo Higashino. The best way to describe the nature of the plot is as a classic Golden Age detective format in service of a revenge thriller. So where do we start? Eriko Kiryu (Takako Tokiwa) is seen arriving at the exclusive guest house owned by the Hara family. In the best metafictional style, she tells viewers she’s come for revenge. The family are attending for the reading of the will left by Takaaki Hara (Soichiro Kitamura). She believes one of those attending was responsible for killing her lover, Jiro Satonaka (Kei Tanaka) and almost strangling her to death in an earlier attack at this guest house. Why, you ask, will no-one recognise her and therefore take precautionary measures against her? She was very badly burned in the fire and so has had substantial reconstructive cosmetic surgery. In fact, she’s been made to resemble a cousin of the patriarch — not someone close enough to the patriarch to be in line to inherit. Her presence will therefore not seem threatening to the principal beneficiaries. This will put her in the best position to act as an amateur detective to try to identify who killed Jiro, attacked her, and set the fire that left her disfigured.
This is a Golden Age type of problem because all the family members then at the guest house had a motive to kill Jiro and/or her. Any one of them could have entered her room either by walking along the corridor or by walking through the garden and passing through the sliding window. As Eriko Kiryu, she was only a personal secretary but became a target because she was the most trusted member of the group of people surrounding Takaaki Hara. Despite their significant age difference, some even speculated Takaaki Hara might marry her or leave her ownership of the businesses and the money simply to spite the money-grubbing family members. Eliminating her removed one of the possible threats to the family inheriting the estate. We later learn there was also a reason for killing Jiro Satonaka, but it’s not clear how many of the family would have been aware of it.
To stir things up, she announces to the family at their first evening meal that she has a copy of the will made by Eriko Kiryu. It’s strongly hinted that the will contains information that will help identify who killed Jiro Satonaka. Needless to say, the envelope supposedly containing the will is stolen from her room and the thief is later found murdered. This brings Chief inspector Yasaki (Takashi Naito) to the guest house and a race develops. Will Eriko Kiryu work out who killed Jiro and take her revenge before the Chief Inspector realises she’s a fake and takes her out of the picture? Obviously, the same set of people are present as guests on both occasions, so it’s probable the same killer is at work. Ironically, this second death also benefits all those in line for inheritance. One less to inherit means more for the survivors. Despite watching the ending twice, I remain uncertain about the mechanics of who precisely is present at the relevant earlier times. I can envisage how the first death and attempted strangling must have been done, but I’m not convinced that’s what we see. Despite this, the amateur and professional detective are impressive in their ability to see through some of the deceit. And there’s a nice irony that Eriko Kiryu is not quite as close to unmasking as she might have feared. That said, her haste to take her revenge does produce a most interesting revelation. That the official investigation might have identified the killer from the forensic evidence is left hanging in the air. So The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 is fairly impressive with a nice array of unpleasant relatives queuing up to inherit to choose from as the killer.
For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ～劇場版・新参者～ (2012)
Sometimes, it takes a book as good as this to remind you how enjoyable a novel set in Victorian times can be. For my sins as a reviewer, I’ve been reading quite a lot of steampunk lately and, set against Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 2014), the majority of such books are shown to be shallow and rather pedestrian. This has all the best features of proper historical fiction with a little real science thrown in and a lot of genuinely thoughtful detection work in pursuit of a murderer or (if such a thing is possible) someone worse. In terms of quality, this matches my other favourite historical drama from a different medium. Foyle’s War is a television detective series set during World War II with each murder or other crime growing organically out of the culture and events of the time. What makes this series so enjoyable is its willingness to see all the shades of moral gray with a police officer prepared to bend the rules to both catch “criminals” and let them go as circumstances dictate. It’s also fascinating to see television prepared to deal with corruption both in the police force itself, the armed services, and among some of the supposedly higher reaches of society.
This novel sees us in the world of Special Branch with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt joining up with the cast of regulars to keep the British Empire safe. We start off with the body of a young woman discovered in a gravel pit almost on the doorstep of the home of a leading British scientist. This makes it a Special Branch case because anything that may affect a key member of the scientific establishment has to be investigated by those able to “see the big picture”. In this case, the investigation is made difficult because, although a maid has gone missing from the house, the identity of the woman in the pit is not at all clear. Her face has been completely disfigured although her hair is just about the right colour. However, she does have in her possession two objects which apparently link her to the house. The first is a handkerchief which is marked with the same initial letter as the lady of the house. The second is a pocket watch which belongs to the scientist. When he sees it, the scientist asserts that it was stolen from him some weeks earlier in Oxford Street. The theft was not reported to the police and there are some possible lies when he’s asked to account for his movements during the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body.
I’ve seen the basic idea of this plot used before, but this particular application is one of the most extreme examples of the trope. This makes the underlying mystery challenging for the armchair detective to solve and, in a way, it’s also slightly contrived. Indeed, in the real world, I seriously doubt people would actually behave in this way, but I forgive the author because it does make for a rather pleasing problem for the team to solve. I also note a slightly pleasing modern parallel as we approach the end. This juxtaposition between the historical and the modern does point the difference in the way honour worked back in Victorian times. When people felt indebted to each other, they were more prepared to bend or even ignore rules in order to discharge that debt.
Put all this together and you have a good mystery with some impeccable social commentary both on the class system as it then applied and on the role of women. Although one of the elements of romance proves to be a little predictable, there’s a generally plausible feel to the relationships that underpin the working of the plot. The characters generally feel right for the time. For those who enjoy intelligent writing in service to a good plot, Death on Blackheath is excellent value for money.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).
This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.
Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I’m toying with the idea of describing Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) as “efficient”, but I’m not sure this is quite the right word. This is the second book to feature Rick Montoya, a bilingual Italian/American who lives in Italy and makes his living as a translator. As such, the book has to confront a number of different problems and to meet a number of expected goals. Let’s start with the question of language. As we read it, we’re supposed to believe that, except where expressly stated, all the relevant parties are speaking colloquial Italian. Obviously, apart from the occasional buon giorno to signal the start of a morning conversation, the vocabulary and syntax are that of contemporary American. Since this is a book aimed at native English speakers, the book cannot be written in a foreign language. However, I do sometimes wonder whether more of an effort might be made to reflect some of the “local” rhythms of speech.
Then there’s the question of culture. Italy is not just about the language, it’s also about the social dynamics. People born and bred in different parts of Italy have quite different attitudes when it comes to how they react in different situations. So, for example, the relationship between the sexes, the reaction to people visiting from different parts of Italy, or dealing with foreigners, will vary quite significantly depending on where you are. Because this is also difficult to show, this author tends to define the local culture in terms of its food and wines. There are several quite detailed descriptions of the meals the characters eat and the alcohol they drink. Hence, this description of an Italian resort town is efficient. It does enough through the odd word or short phrase in Italian to remind people where they are supposed to be, and the culinary arts are firmly Italian. As to the rest, apart from a description of the cemetery and one rather nice story about why relationships can change, this could be Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or Squaw Valley.
In fact, the setting is the Dolomites which is used to “welcoming” holidaymakers who come to ski during the season, so this particular group of people should be sufficiently open to maximise the amount of euros they can absorb during the visiting season. Hotels, restaurants, cafes and all the usual run of artisanal tourist-oriented shops are lined up ready to supply what their visitors expect to find at a price that’s not a deterrent. This shapes the local politics with the two candidates for mayor being a woodcarver and a baker, both determined to keep their town popular with skiers.
The death of an American is therefore potentially bad for business, and the current mayor is determined the whole matter must be investigated and forgotten as quickly and quietly as possible. An experienced detective arrives from the nearest city and needs a translator to be able to interview the sister who reported him missing. Our hero is the ideal candidate because his uncle is a senior police officer in Rome and has used his influence to have his nephew accepted as an informal consultant. This pitches our hero in the forefront of the investigation and it’s interesting to watch how both the experienced officer and translator arrive at the same answer at the end, but by travelling slightly different routes. In practical terms, the mystery element is high quality. We have a limited pool of suspects which fairly quickly comes down to a choice between two. There’s a minor twist towards the end. The mechanics of the murder and the aftermath are well worked out. The result is satisfyingly logical. I was also reminded of an early episode in the Inspector Morse television series in which our detective was engaging in some gossip at a college function and it was only at the end that he realised how he had been misled. This uses the same device to steer us in completely the wrong direction until evidence to the contrary emerges at the end. Put all this together and you have a book that very efficiently places us in Italy and expertly gives us armchair detectives a rather pleasing puzzle to chew on. Although the thriller elements are somewhat unsatisfying, Death in the Dolomites shows an author developing the craft and delivering a highly satisfying mystery read.
For a review of the first in the series, see Cold Tuscan Stone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As I was thinking about this review, I began to wonder whether “folksy” had pejorative connotations. At a literal level, I suppose the word means that something is characteristic of the life of common folk. The problem is that “common folk” are often the victims of class prejudice. Their interests and lifestyles are thought simple in the less flattering sense of the word. They are considered one of the downtrodden masses, often unimaginative, less well educated, and suffering a life deprived of many features of life we might take for granted. They will be patronised or treated with some degree of contempt. In America, they might be thought scroungers and ne’er-do-wells. In Britain, we might have tried to redeem them by calling them the “salt of the earth”, but that’s hardly the most flattering way of describing their life on the land. Perhaps it would be safer to talk about folk or oral histories which take the stories of the common or ordinary people as the point of view. History is too often presented to us as a top-down phenomenon which tends to marginalise or ignore the situation of the majority of people at the bottom of the social heap. Many prefer to talk of prime ministers and presidents as the exemplars of success rather than individuals who are poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, if too much attention was to be focused on these people, there might be stirrings of sympathy and some pressure to ameliorate their situation, and that would never do. Redistribution is the enemy of the 1% who control most of the wealth in all societies.
Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) brings us another in the series featuring the Tucker family in rural Oklahoma. The time is 1916 and the community of Boynton is about to be hit by a major storm and big twister. While we wait for The Big Blow (the best of the descriptions of a major hurricane by Joe R Lansdale), we get a slice of life on both sides of metaphorical tracks. On the majority side, the God-fearing, self-satisfied majority do their best to maintain their values against the hardship of their lives. On the other side are the Beldons, a family whose existence is a blight on the lives of the majority. The worst “offender” is Jubal, the eldest son and not only a physical bully, but also a blackmailer when he identifies facts those at risk would prefer untold. However, when the facts are missing, he’s not averse to rumour-seeding falsehoods which the self-righteous majority often pick up and treat as true. Either way, Jubal is actively disliked and avoided whenever possible. So few are unhappy when his body turns up in a field after the twister has barrelled its way though the outskirts of this tiny township. There’s just one problem. He may actually have been dead before the wind picked him up and dropped him again.
A combination of individuals then investigates this death and there’s something of a conclusion about which of the better citizens might have done it. However, because this is a period piece, the judge who travels to the township and holds a form of inquiry is unable to say with any degree of certainty whether this was a murder and, if it was a suspicious death which might give rise to the possibility of criminal charges, who might actually be charged. As one might therefore expect, none of the God-fearing are charged and the remaining Beldons end up moving away. Hence, this is not exactly a conventional historical mystery. Although some of what occurs in the first two-thirds of the book is relevant to investigating the death, what we really have is a slice of Oklahoma life circa 1916 with recipes for the best dishes included in the appendix. So as I began by saying, this is somewhat folksy in the more literal sense of the word. Had there been hills, we might have met Billies. As it is, this is hardscrabble with the storm elevating the usual struggle to moderately epic proportions. The first third of the book was not so interesting to me—if you wish, you can put this down to my being British and therefore less caught up in the struggles of the rural poor of South Central America. It rehashes many of the conventions of life at that time with the bad apple family and their appalling sons terrorising the younger women and many of the men in their neighbourhood. I’ve read better descriptions of storms and tornadoes, so this section of the book was merely adequate. However, it does come to life when the multiple points of view begin piecing together what happened before the storm hit. So taken overall, Hell With the Lid Blown Off will appeal to the readers of folk history with a mystery thrown in at the end to keep people like me happy. The result is marginally better than average.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.
As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.
As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.
Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2014) answers the old chestnut. When an author has just finished one of the best thriller trilogies of the last decade, what does he write next. The answer delivered here is completely fascinating. In one sense, it could not be more different, yet underneath the literal text, it’s a different perspective on the same themes. So first a few words about The Troubles Trilogy featuring Sean Duffy. Our hero is the Catholic who doesn’t fit into the majority Protestant police force. In the eyes of many, he’s not welcome in many parts of the community. (Northern) Ireland has been bedevilled by the sectarian divide between the Protestants (who hold themselves out as British Unionists) and Catholics (who identify themselves as Irish nationalists) for the last few centuries. Since people tend to become more emotionally involved in conflict once the sides are drawn up based on religious beliefs, this has been one of the world’s most enduring social battlegrounds with discrimination rife and violence never far from the surface. Even today, people still hide behind protective barriers in some parts of Belfast, Derry and other flashpoint areas.
In this new book, we meet Lieutenant William Prior who’s serving as a military police officer in South Africa during the Second Boer War. He happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the people bottled up in one of the British concentration camps make a break for freedom. In the heat of the moment, he sees it as his duty to prevent the escape and protect his troops. Coming under attack, he orders the troops to use a Maxim machine gun against the malnourished and unarmed internees. Many are killed but, such is the morality of the time, he’s congratulated for doing what was necessary to protect the men under his command. This leaves him suffering what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder and he finds a way of getting out of the army with no chance of ever being re-enlisted. By a circuitous route, he ends up theoretically responsible for running a rubber plantation in the Deutsch Neu Guinea.
This is a man who found he did not fit in the British army and therefore moved to a German-controlled colony where, equally, he did not fit. Moving forward a few years, we find he’s gone “native”, living with a local woman in the bush. His peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of Hauptman Kessler who wants a man with experience as a police officer to accompany him to a nearby island where there’s been a suspicious death. The occupants are what we would describe as a cult. Although the inspirational leader and the woman supplying the money to make their encampment viable are German, there are several other nationalities represented in their ranks. This gives Prior, Kessler and the real-world Bessie Pullen-Burry an interesting group of people to investigate. Bessie is along as an observer, and later writes a book about her experiences in the German colonies of New Guinea, describing several of the characters we meet in the first part of this book. The basis of the cult’s lifestyle and belief system is that they will achieve physical immortality by living a life dominated by the sun. They spend many days simply bathing in its light, only eating coconuts and bananas which grow at the top of the trees and therefore capture the sun’s goodness. This will purge the body of toxins and, helped along by substantial quantities of heroin, their meditation will produce a lifespan of at least one-hundred years. It’s unfortunate the man who died had not been there longer. With only ten weeks on the regimen, he had yet to develop the physical and spiritual strength to throw of the malaria alleged to cause his death. The fact the local doctor performed an autopsy and found evidence the man was drowned is dismissed as the incompetent ravings of a Jewish doctor. The fact Prior has also seen the peri-mortem bruising to the shoulders where he was held face-down in the water is also dismissed as fantasy. The group of cultists is adamant the man died of malaria. What, they demand, would their motive be for killing a new recruit to their order? Initially, of course, no-one can suggest any motive. Yet, as Prior picks at the story these cultists tell, one of two inconsistencies emerge. The result has considerable power and remains consistent with the historical records, such as they are.
So this is a book about a man who morally and culturally finds himself on a no-man’s island to investigate a cult. The very fact of his presence inevitably represents a challenge to the obsessional belief system which holds the group together. He’s therefore an enemy. When he turns to Hauptman Kessler, he finds no support. The politics are not to rock the boat. The Germans are in competition with the Dutch when it comes to administering colonies and getting a financial reward out of the plantations. If it was even hinted there was a cult murdering people, this would be very damaging to the Reich’s reputation. Malaria is the preferred answer for everyone. Even Bessie seems to be siding with the cultists, surprisingly adopting their nudity which disconcerts both Prior and Kessler who expected her to remain a “proper” English woman. The author is skilfully inviting us to consider just how individuals should act when confronted by groupthink. The British army had their view of how to keep order in their concentration camps. The German administration is embarrassed by what this group led by Germans is doing. Albeit for different reasons, the cultists want to be left alone. So should Prior actually take the investigation seriously? If he does come up with evidence of possible wrongdoing, should Kessler tell the Governor? The answer to these and other questions is presented in a slow-burning, but ultimately powerful, historical mystery which is recommended.
Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.