The Meiji Guillotine Murders
by Futaro Yamada
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Pub Date 4 Jun 2024 | Archive Date 4 Jan 2024
Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo
A captivating locked room murder mystery perfect for fans of Stuart Turton and Janice Hallett
Japan, 1869. A time of reform and rebellion.
Detectives Kazuki and Kawaji are assigned to investigate a series of seemingly impossible murders. Together with the help of a mysterious shrine maiden, can they solve each gruesome death and piece together the dark connection between them?
Taking us deep into the heart of 19th century Tokyo, The Meiji Guillotine Murders is a fiendish murder mystery from one of Japan's greatest crime writers.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 11 members
I really enjoy the Pushkin Vertigo series, which has introduced me to lots of twentieth-century fiction I would never have otherwise read, much of which I've reviewed here, including books by Seishi Yokomizo, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Frederic Dard.
In contrast to some of the other twentieth-century Japanese crime fiction translated for the series, this one has a historical setting, taking us back to the mid-nineteenth century and the rulers following the Meiji Restoration. This is a turbulent period with various regional alliances and conflicts churning away as the governance of the country is reshaped. The guillotine in question is a French import, accompanied by a French executioner, and it serves as a conflicted symbol of modernisation/Westernisation. The historical elements are really interesting here, and Yamada alludes not only to past events but also to future rebellion, which helps to set clearly the boundaries of the book as a historical set piece.
The novel proceeds largely with a structure of individual stories, framed as a form of competition between the two friends and colleagues. I found this initially confusing, but the story does come back around to an overarching plotline, which only really began to become clear in the much later chapters. Because of this structure, the primary focus is on progressing each individual plot, and there is less character development of the two rivals (and certainly less of the French executioner) than I might have liked. However, the structure is really effective as a quasi-"casebook", and it's certainly not out of keeping for the genre, following a pairing with some Holmes/Watson elements.
I look forward to more of Yamada's work being translated in the future, and I will also be hunting out his Holmesian pastiche short story The Yellow Lodger and having a read around neo-Victorian criticism about his work in the meantime!
I read a lot of classic crime, but this was fascinating, as I knew nothing about the Meiji period, and the detail the author goes into is fantastic. The detectives from the Imperial Prosecuting office investigate various crimes - there are a series of linked stories - in the emerging Meiji society and the new influx of foreigners from Europe. The solutions for the crimes come through the voices of the dead, using a spirit medium to explain their last moments. I haven't read anything like this before and I found it really unusual and different.
The Meiji Guillotine Murders is a very entertaining historical Japanese crime/mystery thriller by prolific author the late Futaro Yamada, many of whose books have been adapted for TV and and Film in his home country.
The book is set in the Meiji period when ,under pressure from the West,Japan was dragged kicking and screaming from an isolationist feudal society towards the more modern and very successful country it is today. The changes initially polarised the country and it was a time of great turmoil ,plots, assassinations and power plays. The first chapter of the book describes the situation and the historical context of the story.
The main characters are Detectives Kawaji and Kazuki who solve a series of bizarre and often seemingly impossible crimes ably assisted,seemingly, by the spirit world via French Woman Esmeralda ,and sometimes not so ably by 5 Rasotsu, basically city watchmen. While the plethora of Japanese personal names and nouns can be a little confusing this is great fun and very clever. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will love the series of offbeat crimes and the deduction that solves them. All are linked and when the "big picture" is revealed so is the cleverness of the author.
Hopefully more translations to come of Futaro Yamada's books,I'm hooked alreay.