Tokyo Express | Seichō Matsumoto #JPNcrimefiction

Tokyo Express | Translated by Jesse Kirkwood

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!

Favourite Quote:

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.

14 thoughts on “Tokyo Express | Seichō Matsumoto #JPNcrimefiction

  1. I loved this book, especially the intricacies of the trains and timetables that mihara works out. I liked both detectives as you did and wished there was more of the local detective in the story too.

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  2. Oh, a Penguin Classic, I shall have to see if our bookshop has a copy! Weirdly I’ve just been reading in Christopher Priest’s part-metafictional, speculative fiction detective novel (!) The Evidence about a thriller writer who expounds on classic thriller writers who base the solving of a crime on an intimate knowledge of railway timetables!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect it would only be useful in Japan where you know the trains will run on time (or within in a half a minute of scheduled times). Everywhere else, it would be sure the schedule said 10:53, but did it turn up early, on time or late, or did it not turn up at all!

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  3. I’ve seen this one getting an awful lot of love online throughout the Japanese Literature Challenge, and it does sound really, really good. Definitely adding it to the wishlist!

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  4. Wait. We traveled around Honshu in 2018, too! How did I not see you?😉

    Like you, I am first entranced by the cover: the French flap, the quiet mood already set for us.

    I have read Seicho Matsumoto before, but not this particular boo, and I like him very, very much. In a way, your post reminded me of a Death In Tokyo by Keigo Higashino, which I just read, because of the two detectives, and the portrayal of the characters in deeper ways. But, how lovely to know Japan in a more intimate way, too. I definitely want to read this. Thanks, Brona!

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    1. Ha ha – we were there in April/May bloosom chasing, so except for Tokyo, Osaka & Hiroshima at the end of our trip, we found ourselves off-the tourist track in northern Honshu trying to find blossoms. The best display was at Hirosaki Castle near Aomori, therefore delighted when Mihara went to Aomori to catch the ferry across to Hokkaido.

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  5. Thank you for this. I will try and join in. I love Japan. I love the fact that their trains work to the nth degree. Here in the UK we consider ourselves lucky if a train turns up at all!

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    1. Ha! We’re the same in Australia – and as for coordinating ferry and bus timetables ! The number of times we’ve got off the ferry to see the bus driving up the hill and away before any of the passengers can get on is infuriating in it’s predictability!

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  6. I was laughing when I read this, trying to imagine how the precision of the train timetable and using it as an alibi would simply not work in another country! I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as you, but it certainly made me want to start travelling all over Japan!

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  7. Although Matsumoto wrote so much there is so little available in English translation, at least in the US. Hopefully a publisher will see the potential and bring more of his work out in translation. But you’ve talked me into adding Tokyo Express to the wishlist!

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