The Tatoo Murder Case
By Akimitsu Takagi
Translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

Soho Press (dist. Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Reviewed by J. Ashley (11/98)

Tokyo just after World War II is a grim place, or so Kenzo Matsushita finds it until he attends a tattoo contest put on by the oldest tattoo society in the city. There he meets Kinue Nomura, one of three children of a famous tattoo artist who created on her body a masterpiece of art. Kinue seems worried, has received threatening letters, and is pestered by Professor Hayakawa who wants her promise that her tatooed skin will come to his collection after her death. Kenzo spends one night of glorious passion with her, but when he goes to her house at her invitation, he finds there a locked room and Kinue's dead body within--minus the torso.

Kenzo's brother, Daiyu, detective chief inspector with the Tokyo police, investigates. Prime suspects are professor Hayakawa, who claims Kinue also invited him to her house on the same day; Takezo, Kinue's lover; Gifu Inazawa, the manager of Takezo's company, Hisashi, an old classmate of Kenzo's; and Kenzo himself.

In the background are the shadowy figures of Kinue's brother and sister, also bearers of master tatoos. Three children, three pictures of mythological warrior/magicians, three pictures that should never be together--a taboo broken.

A locked room, a bizarre murder, the presence of the yakuza (gangsters), and the mysterious tatoos send Kenzo and his brother along a puzzling trail. They are joined by Kyosuke Kamizu, another of Kenzo's old classmates, a brilliant young man who eventually untangles the case and lays the solution, Holmes-like, at their feet.

If you like classic mystery, read this book. The world of post-WWII Japan is brought to life in all its contrasts, bombed-out buildings next to perfectly preserved houses, people longing to return to normal life in the middle of chaos.

This is the most enjoyable book I've read in a long time. It is the first in a series with Kamizu as the sleuth, and the only one currently available in English. I fervently hope more translations will follow. The story was engrossing, details of Japanese life intriguing, and it was a satisfying mystery in every sense. It was predictable at times, but the author was writing in 1947, and all the derivative books of the 80s and 90s hadn't yet appeared. Read it as you'd watch a classic movie.

The writing was a little clunky in places, but I'll forgive that, too. Translating from a language as different from English as Japanese isn't easy (trust me). The distracting prose aside, this story is well worth getting your hands on. Don't let the Japanese names put you off--each syllable in Japanese receives the same weight (most of the time), and you'll get the hang of it soon.

If you're interested in tatoos, have one, or are considering getting one, read this book.

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