From Turning Japanese, to Gumshoe Adventures, and Toxic Self-Care
The six novels here are brilliant explorations of ‘turning Japanese,’ the detecting life, and unraveling suburban mysteries
The six novels here are brilliant explorations of ‘turning Japanese,’ the detecting life, and unraveling suburban mysteries.
The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo
It’s the deep winter of 1937 in Japan, and the rural village of Okamura is caught up in the festivities surrounding the Ichinayagi wedding, as the family is the closest they have to local royalty, as their estate is considered a honjin for the area—where imperial personages and individuals of distinction would stop and rest during long overland journeys. When a locked room mystery involving a double murder occurs in the middle of the wedding night, the whole town is caught unaware, left speculating on what really transpired, and who could be responsible for the deaths.
Welcome to the world of Seishi Yokomizo, and this novel, his first amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi adventure. Yokomizo (1902-1981) is considered one of Japan’s most beloved mystery writers, and this book won the very first Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1948, and has never been translated into English until now. It’s ‘old school’ writing with the great device of a narrator recounting how, in his travels, he heard about this impressive feat of crime-solving. It recalls the world of Agatha Christie, but transposed to the social milieu of 1930’s Japan. Very impressive in terms of local color and deducing.
Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan by Keisuke Matsuoka
Many mystery authors and Holmes fans have speculated on what the great detective was up to in the time between his fateful encounter with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, his presumed death, and his sudden reappearance in Baker Street three years later. To his death, Conan Doyle remained silent on the matter; so several ‘in tribute’ works have been created to try and explain where Holmes was. Here’s one more homage, and it comes from Japan’s Matsuoka, devilishly concocting a storyline that has Sherlock ending up in Tokyo. Japan, because as an independent nation, Holmes could safely surface and still be presumed dead back in England; whereas several other options would have been under British rule.
It also affords the opportunity for Holmes to get enmeshed with the politics of the era; specifically, the designs of Russia and the Romanov dynasty to annex Japan. Thanks to an encounter Sherlock had with a Japanese individual who was living in London when Sherlock was a young lad, he has a friend in the Land of the Rising Sun. A friend who, coincidentally, is now Prime Minister, and so it becomes only natural for Sherlock to assist this friend and find himself using logic and deduction to unmask a nefarious plot to precipitate this invasion of Japan, at a time when it was just embarking on becoming a modern nation. Wonderful sense of time and place.
The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi
It isn’t often that we come across a crime thriller that offers something truly original. But that’s exactly what this debut novel of Pavesi manages to deliver. The premise is quite unique—Grant McAllister, a retired mathematics professor now lives in seclusion on a Mediterranean island. Thirty years earlier, he created a theory linking mathematics to crime fiction, “The Permutations of Detective Fiction”, and self-published seven little mystery stories to demonstrate his theory, compiled under the title, “The White Murders”. Out of the blue, a book editor, Julia Hart, wants to visit the island, representing a specialty publishing house; and they want to reissue the book.
What follows structurally is alternating chapters of the seven stories and conversations between Hart and McAllister. She finds inconsistencies in each of the stories, wondering if they’re intentional, or clues to a darker truth about McAllister and why he suddenly disappeared to this island retreat. Discussing “The Permutations” leads us to appreciate how it makes sense, that there are these underlying rules governing detective fiction, and how mastering them helps us appreciate better the ‘magic’ at work of successful mystery novels.
The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart
For those unfamiliar with this author, I would highly recommend savoring this latest; but then heading to her previous trilogy of Li Du novels, which established her well-deserved exalted reputation in the genre of historical crime fiction. The Li Du stories are set in 1700‘s Imperial China, and our reluctant hero/detective is an imperial librarian, who’s pressed into solving murders. Here with The Cabinets, Hart shifts location to 18th century London, and the world of collectors, often rich personages who professed a special interest in science and knowledge and would expend their fortunes on amassing collections that became fountain heads of research and study—they’d often open their homes to visitors like mini-museums.
Our heroine/protagonist is Cecily, a botanist who is granted the opportunity to stay at the home of renowned collector Barnaby Mayne, to compare and classify the plants and flowers she has collected and brought from Eastern Europe. While at the Mayne mansion, the master of the house is brutally murdered, and it falls on Cecily, a keen observer, to help unmask the true murderer. ‘True’ because Mayne’s assistant has seemingly confessed to the crime, even if Cecily and most members of the staff find it hard to believe that the mild-mannered assistant curator could have actually committed the murder. The novel has a great sense of time and place; and you’ll enjoy this world of collectors, where petty jealousies, oneupmanship, and guarded secrets flourish.
Summerlings by Lisa Howorth
Set in a leafy Washington DC suburb in 1959, this novel is a gimlet shot of nostalgia, coming-of-age, of friendship and neighborhood gangs—all living under the shadow of Cold War paranoia, an extraordinary spider infestation, and a rare vinegaroon scorpion that ends up playing a central role in helping bring an end to ‘childish things’. It’s beautifully written, poignant, yet full of adventure, and things we’ll all recognize and remember about our own days as 10-year olds—when more than half the things we’d overhear would be explained as ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’.
John is our main narrator, and his bosom buddies are Max and Ivan, and their tomboy friend Beatriz. She’s the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat, while Ivan’s family is Ukrainian, and Max is Jewish. John lives with his grandparents, as his own mother and father are divorced. Think of a suburbia version of Stand by Me or The Goonies to appreciate the kind of ‘magic’ that’s conjured up by this novel. It’s precious how Howarth creates this community thriving within spitting distance of the Washington monuments and edifices that we immediately think of when the city is brought up.
Self Care by Leigh Stein
Here’s an incisive novel about today’s consumer culture and digital marketplace, as it specifically applies to Women. Maren and Devin are the co-founders of Richual, a social community platform that’s perceived as a Social Media ‘safe haven’ for women to voice out their concerns, trials, and issues; and know that it’s only other women listening, who will offer advice, a shoulder to lean on, or just be there as a listening post. Evan is one of the angel investors of Richual, and they’re about to go seek funding for the next stage of the business.
Problems arise when Maren tweets something about the President’s daughter that’s deemed offensive and goes viral, and when allegations about Evan portray him as a sexual predator. It’s the world of influencer culture, of token internet feminism, of having to make exclusive decisions about being a good person or being a good business decision-maker. There’s a hilarious, cynical edge to Stein’s writing, as she makes straight-faced assertions in the narrative that we know are double-edged, and holding these protagonists to ridicule. Funny and insightful.
Posters from Goodreads