On the evening of the thirteenth of January, Tatsuo Yasuda invited one of his clients to join him at the Koyuki restaurant in Akasaka. His guest was a senior official at one of the government ministries.
I acquired a reading copy of Tokyo Express back in November. At the time I was attracted by the cover (I love French flaps and the atmospheric photograph by Werner Bischof caught my eye). The little tease in the blurb claiming that La Monde call Matsumoto ‘The Simenon of Japan‘ was the final straw – I had to read this book!
According to Wikipedia, Seichō Matsumoto (born 21 December 1909 in Kokura, northern Kyūshū – died 4 August 1992, Tokyo) was the author responsible for popularising detective fiction in Japan.
His first autobiographical story “Aru Kokura nikki-den | Legend of the Kokura Diary” won the Akutagawa Prize for emerging writers in 1952. Tokyo Express was originally published in instalments in a travel magazine, Tabi. It was his debut stand alone detective novel, originally published in English as Points and Lines and Ten to Sen. It was first translated by Makiko Yamamoto and Paul C. Blum and made into a 1958 film directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi.
Motive was Matsumoto’s main device while ‘human psychology and post-war malaise‘ were his preferred topics, according to the bio blurb in my edition of the book. If either of the two Japanese detectives in Tokyo Express had been foodies, the comparison to Simenon and Maigret would have been complete!
Analyzing the reasons that drove people to commit a crime, and getting them down convincingly on paper—this was what he found interesting and rewarding in his work….It was this emphasis on motive that enabled him to portray human characters and actions with such depth, and made his stories resonate so strongly with readers.Nippon.com | 21 May 2019 | Yomota Takashi
Tokyo Express begins with what looks like the double suicide of two lovers on a lonely beach at Kashii, which is now part of Fukuoka City, Kyūshū (near where Matsumoto grew up). The local detective develops a couple of vague suspicions which he passes onto the Tokyo detective who is assigned to the case. Both the deceased were from Tokyo; the woman a waitress at the Koyuki restaurant in Akasaka; the gentleman an Assistant Section Chief at an important ministry under investigation for a bribery scandal.
The key to solving the mystery appeared to centre around train timetables and a couple of pivotal encounters that obviously ‘existed not by chance but by design.’
At one point, our Tokyo detective reads an essay, “Landscapes and Figures” in a literary magazine, written by the wife of the main suspect. It highlights the pleasures of reading a train timetable.
The crossing of the trains is inevitable in time, but the meeting of their passengers in space is entirely accidental. I can fantasize endlessly about the lives led by all these people who, in faraway places, are brushing past each other at this very moment. I derive far more enjoyment from these flights of fancy than from any novel produced by someone else’s imagination. Mine is the solitary, wandering pleasure of dreams.
This essay piqued his suspicions further as the reader also realised that this crime would only be solved by understanding the intricacies of the Japanese train timetable – a thing of beauty that Mr Books fell in love with when we travelled around Honshu in 2018 – although we had an app rather than a 1957 booklet.
It was a delight watching these two detectives slowly unravel the mystery as they travelled from one end of Japan to the other. Matsumoto carefully constructed a crime where motives and opportunity came together via intricate planning. Maps, letters and the essay mentioned above assisted in fleshing out his story in a believable fashion. I was able to work out a couple of the early red herrings, while the lovely ‘gotcha’ moment (that I didn’t see coming) was saved for the final chapter. It was a surprise but still made perfect sense.
According to Wikipedia, he was an activist with both anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments. Corruption both at home and abroad regularly featured in his writing. Even in this, his very first book, Matsumoto used corrupt ministry officials to slip in commentary about the work/life culture of Japan, ‘careerism is a depressing thing‘ and how loyal subordinates were used and abused by their bosses to further their own careers at any cost.
As Simenon so deftly uses Paris as part of his Maigret stories, so too does Matsumoto use Japan. The reader is completely immersed in the Japanese way of life and the Japanese character is carefully explored.
I am now a Seichō Matsumoto convert!
- Read for Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge 16
We all fall prey to preconceptions that make us take certain things for granted. This is a dangerous thing. Our slavish reliance on our own common sense creates a blind spot.
Favourite or Forget: Loved both the detectives – the older local detective, Torigai Jutaro and the up-and-coming Tokyo detective, Kiichi Mihara. A pity this is one of Matsumoto’s stand alone novels, as I would have enjoyed reading more books featuring these two men.
From the TBR: Tokyo Express has been on my TBR since November 2022 – not that long I know, but it’s one more book gone from the stacks.
Title: Tokyo Express | Points and Lines | 点と線 | Ten to Sen Author: Seichō Matsumoto Translator: Jesse Kirkwood ISBN: 9780241439074 Imprint: Penguin Classics Published: 1 November 2022 (originally published 1958) Format: Paperback with French flaps front and back Pages: 150 Dates Read: 3 January 2023 - 7 January 2023
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.