Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in.
His mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the grisly murder of an American businessman. When Takamatsu disappears, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi. They scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, corporate offices and industrial wastelands to find Takamatsu, and a woman driven to murder who seems to have it all.
Being a huge fan of Japanese crime fiction I admit to being particularly intrigued by THE LAST TRAIN. Set in Tokyo the viewpoint of this novel, written by an ex-pat American professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University who has now lived in that city for twenty years, was a large part of this appeal.
Whatever elements there are that feed into THE LAST TRAIN, they have combined to create a fascinating police procedural / serial killer with a reason novel interwoven with aspects of Japanese tradition and culture. Things get underway pretty quickly, when we're introduced to a victim being led away from a bar district, absolutely hammered drunk, only to have him fall in front of an underground train. Obviously the first part of the investigation is to decide if this American man was an extreme form of suicide or a murder. Enter our detective hero - Detective Hiroshi Shimizu, a man who remembers fondly his time studying in America. Filled with regret over the loss of his foreign girlfriend, he is pulled into a murder investigation in a most unexpected manner. Shimizu is a white collar crime investigator - much more at home in the world of financial shenanigans and spreadsheets, it's via his mentor, Takamatsu that he finds himself included in a murder investigation that rapidly becomes a serial killer hunt. When his Takamatsu goes missing Shimizu teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi to track down that most unusual of things - a female serial killer.
The outsider's viewpoint really works well in the way that Tokyo life is observed and described. There's lots of little gems of information imparted as the action proceeds - from the food / the night life / the way that the nightclub and hostess world works, and there's great humour. It was impossible not to laugh out loud at sumo-sized thugs setting off overweight alarms in lifts, and an elderly man prepared to use machinery lathes as a lethal weapon if necessary.
Interestingly, even though it's an outsider viewpoint, it has an intrinsically Japanese feel to the novel - there's much to learn about the society, there's much to learn about the people, and there's much to admire in creating a female serial killer who is believable, and, more importantly sympathetic understandable.
Even with a little bit of heavy lifting towards the end dragging everything into line, THE LAST TRAIN is a really good novel for fans of crime fiction in general, and Asian crime in particular.
Review - THE THIEF, Fuminori Nakamura
The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections.... But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt.
Brief but beautifully evocative, sparse yet hugely informative, THE THIEF is another example of Japanese noir sensibility. Told in first person, Nishimura is a pickpocket who targets the rich by preference. Working his highly skilled way through the crowds of Tokyo, he's an unrepentant thief, and a fragile man. Manipulated into a much bigger crime by the gangster Kizaki, Nishimura's life might be spiralling out of control, yet he is still able to reach out to a young boy. The relationship between the man and the boy is touching and poignant as he gives advice on the best way to steal, whilst trying to find a way out of a bad home life and into some sort of future.
Whilst there is action built into the plot, the main focus of THE THIEF for this reader, was the characters. Drawn with deft strokes that give you a clear view of a vulnerable young boy, his driven and desperate mother, and the crime boss Kizaki - calm, determined, vicious and dangerous.
Into every reader's life a book like THE THIEF really should creep. Precise and compact, the style of storytelling feeds the reader's imagination with sufficient detail of the place, and the atmosphere of Nishimura's Tokyo. That brevity also draws a fascinating portrait of the man himself, the matter-of-factness of observation leaving the reader to interpret the causes and outcomes of each event. Even for such a slim volume, it really should have come with a warning about reading late into the night.