Translated from Japanese by Jesse Kirkwood

I thought I’d start my reading for the 16th Edition of the Japanese Literary Challenge and #JanuaryinJapan with a crime novel set on a train – one of my favourite settings. Or I thought it was. While Tokyo Express features many train journeys and actual train timetables from 1957 are key to unpicking the mystery, not much happens on trains. Nevertheless in this novel, Matsumoto lays the foundation of Japanese detective fiction and it is exceptional.

A man and a woman, are seen embarking on the Tokyo Express. Five days later their bodies are found side by side on the stones of Kashii Beach in an assumed lovers’ double suicide (a frequent occurrence in late 1950’s Japan). Initial investigations seem to bear this out, but the antennae of the elderly local police officer, Torigai, begin to twitch when he discovers that the dead man, Samaya, dined alone on the train. Where was his lover? The arrival of Detective Mihara from Tokyo, who is simultaneously investigating Samaya’s involvement in a government corruption scandal, gives him an opportunity to air his suspicions.

Mihara takes it from there, and it is as well that the case lands on the younger man’s plate because it is an energy-sapping, time-consuming case, involving travel the length and breadth of Japan. His task to prove murder when there is no evidence, and to crack the seemingly unbreakable alibi of the prime suspect. This is dogged determination, the day-in, day-out slog of police work with nothing sensational about it. In fact, getting so tied up in the minutiae of train timetables, there are times when Mihara cannot see the wood for the trees. Just the way it is sometimes. You have to wait for a flash of inspiration.

It’s surprising though how mesmerising this story was. Perhaps that’s because the two detectives are mutually respectful, forming a sincere friendship with each other. Mihara’s boss is supportive throughout. No fraught professional relationships or rivalries detract from the puzzle of the piece. That was tangled enough, and I really felt for Mihara as his theories ended in dead ends one after another. My only niggle is that perhaps there was one dead end too many. It did feel a little repetitive. But then Tokyo Express was originally published in serial form, and perhaps the contract specified one instalment too many, resulting in an almost perfect novel about an almost perfect crime.

(And yes, I’ll be seeking out more Matsumoto.)