One chilly January morning in 1957, a man discovers two dead bodies on a Japanese beach. A young woman in an immaculate kimono and a gentleman with polished shoes. Curiously, both corpses are rosy cheeked, an anomaly explained away by the police doctor as a sign of cyanide poisoning. It’s almost certainly a classic love suicide pact, but in Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, we’re reminded to challenge even the most elementary assumptions, particularly when one of the deceased is a government official implicated in a bribery scandal. A meticulously (some might say obsessively) plotted 1958 Japanese crime classic, it’s a deliciously knotty read.
One of the first local detectives on the scene is of a type later immortalised in one of the greatest TV shows in history, the mighty Columbo (disappointingly there’s no evidence that this book sparked its inception). With his shabby overcoat, worn tie and unassuming demeanour, veteran detective Jūtarō Torigai is set to ask some awkward questions. His skills are also employed à la Columbo, in a ‘howdunnit,’ rather than a whodunnit, as early on in the proceedings, we’re made aware of some very interesting facts.
Matsumoto lets the reader in on a series of earlier events, beginning at a chic restaurant in Tokyo. Here, Tatsuo Yasuda, successful businessman and schmoozer, chats idly with his three favourite waitresses. Two of them will be sharing a late lunch with him the following day. The third, Toki, has been overlooked.
The following day, after lunch, Yasuda and the waitresses happen to be waiting for a train at Tokyo Station. Chatting idly on Platform 13, the trio have a clear view across the tracks to Platform 15, where to their surprise, they see Toki, elegantly dressed and boarding a long-distance express train with a young man. They must be secret lovers, the waitresses declare, vaguely scandalised.
This is the last time they will ever see Toki. She is soon to become the dead woman on the beach, along with her male companion. One of the three know who he is. They also know that during the course of a day at this busiest of stations, there is only a four minute window when it’s possible to obtain an unblocked view from Platforms 13 to 15. An extraordinary coincidence, considering that the trio’s witness testimony will prove to be the only evidence supporting the love suicide theory.
Our crumpled detective Torigai is on the case like a dog with a gnarly bone, sharing the plaudits with Inspector Mihara, a sharp young detective parachuted in from HQ. Once it transpires that the dead man was a key figure in a government scandal, the pair find themselves up against a voracious media and a razor-sharp adversary. One whose trail of deceit and obfuscation hinges on pinpoint manipulation of the briefest windows of time.
Based on actual train and plane timetables of 1957, Matsumoto has constructed an impressively complex plot that stretches across Japan. The railway timetable with its ‘dense rows of numbers,’ has become an ingenious tool, helping create red herrings, alibis, and a maths headache.
Newly translated by Jesse Kirkwood, Tokyo Express is a uniquely brain-stretching treat.
Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto is published by Penguin Classics, 160 pages.