It was probably in early 2015, when I had just purchased my Kindle, that I learnt about the existence of Japanese crime and detective novels, or more specifically speaking, about the existence of English translations of Japanese crime and detective novels. Since then I have read more than 20 books by Japanese authors – most of them being crime or detective novels – with more lined up for the months ahead. That is about 6-7 Japanese crime novels a year. To put that in perspective, the years of 2012-2014 probably saw me read about 2-4 books a year total. So yes, I totally got hooked on to them from the beginning. But more importantly, it (and the Kindle) triggered my overall reading habit back into motion, and since 2015, I have read about 10-12 books each year, if not more. My wife, who barely had any reading habit at all, has now more or less caught up with me on these books in less than a year! And it has got HER reading other books as well!
(As a small aside, I drove to meet her in Kansas City earlier this month. We were meeting up after a few weeks so I was excited to see her. She was reading a Japanese crime novel when I surprised her at the hotel room by arriving earlier than I had said. I was all smiles and excitement. HER immediate reaction, however, was to yell at me, “They just discovered 9 bodies!!! Why did you have to come at this very moment?!!!??” You get the idea….)
My wife and I have gained tremendous satisfaction and a sense of awe from these books and would definitely want more people to experience this for themselves. And hence this post to introduce people to Japanese crime and detective fiction.
It should be noted that these books only began to get translated to English a few years ago. And following the overwhelming response from the English reading community, publishers are now falling head over heels to get more works translated. So, most of the authors already have a large collection of books published in Japanese, but are waiting for them to be translated to English. The publishers appear to be ‘releasing’ these books once every few months or so, so always keep an eye out for new ones. I am not sure about the extent of the availability of these books in ‘print’ form. (I have only read 2 of these in print). But all of these are definitely available on Kindle. And seriously, a Kindle would be a worthwhile investment JUST to read these books!
So this post is intended to be about where to start, what to expect, what not to expect, general recommendations, and tips for reading the books. But before we get to the actual content, I would strongly recommend adhering to the following general tips:
Do not read any blurbs, summaries or reviews: I cannot emphasize this enough. I am a very strong believer in letting the book surprise you right from the first page without any preset expectations or ideas. And with the mystery novels such as these, it takes an even bigger significance. So even in this post, I am not going to ‘rate’ or ‘review’ the books. I will only make a general recommendation. So please, just dive straight into the book!
Keep track of the names separately: All these books are made up of Japanese names (duh!) that may or may not be easy to remember. Some books have a relatively small number of characters while others will require a mandatory index of characters to be created if you want to keep track of who is who. So it might be worth your while to have a small note that lists all the characters in the books.
Keep track of the geography: This is not really a requirement, but would definitely help visualize a lot of the action and gives a useful spatial perspective. You will also understand what is the difference between a city, prefecture and a ward!
Not for Kids: No other way to put it. This is not something you want to give to your kids to read. This is for the most part 18+ material.
Movie versions: Many of the books below have been made into movies and/or TV shows. But, as always, read the book first. Then watch the movie.
By the time you have read through a dozen books or so, you will also learn a lot about Japanese culture in general – including (and especially) the widespread existence and a seemingly complete acceptance of shady ‘Love Hotels’! (They are exactly what you think they are!)
In any case, below is a list of books/authors that I would personally recommend to get started with Japanese crime and detective fiction. This is a list of the authors who are most popular and recommended. And in the end, I have also included a list of other books where the author may not have had multiple books in print/translation.
Keigo Higashino: There is literally no other place to start. If you are talking Japanese crime and detective fiction, Higashino is pretty much the default starting point and the bench mark. There are currently 7 of his works available in English translation with an 8th on its way in 2018. From my knowledge, everybody pretty much starts with Devotion of Suspect X. And it is probably where I would recommend starting as well. It introduces the extremely adorable ‘Detective Galileo’ who will also appear on Salvation of a Saint and A Midsummer’s Equation. Each of those books are highly recommended. Malice and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are his other two strongly recommended books. The strength of Higashino’s books are the underlying premises and the steady development of the plot towards the revelation of these premises. Like most of the books listed in this post, Higashino’s books have a laser focus on the plot development, eschewing any and all distractions such as police bureaucracy, random female non-characters (I am looking at you Michael Connelly!), etc. All the above books are police procedurals and are probably the best introduction you can have to Japanese crime and detective fiction. The one outlier, of course, is Under the Midnight Sun. Coming in at more than twice the length of his other books, this book is more of a soap opera than a crime novel. (Its cast of characters went into several pages! And my wife had named two of them as ‘Fuckboy 1’ and ‘Fuckboy 2’ – implying exactly what they stand for!) It is extremely difficult to believe it is the same guy who wrote this book! So, even if you avoid Under the Midnight Sun, that is completely OK. It is by no means a bad book, just extremely un-Higashino like. But, as a fan of Higashino, I will put it like this: “Some Higashino is still better than no Higashino!”
Seicho Matsumoto: The first Japanese crime fiction book I read was Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. To this day, it remains the absolute best I have read. It has a strong premise, police procedural work meticulously detailed, very steady build up, and a satisfying conclusion – the hallmarks of an excellent detective novel. I was blown away and it provided the motivation to explore more in this genre. In fact, this book was so good that my expectations from Matsumoto ended up being too high for all his other books: Pro Bono, A Quiet Place, and Points and Lines. They are not bad books by any means, but are nowhere near the level of Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Would still recommend them, but do not be surprised if you feel the same way I do.
Tetsuya Honda: Probably the only author to feature a female lead detective, Honda currently has 2 of his books in English translation. Silent Dead was the first book to feature Detective Reiko Himekawa, and this was recently followed up with Soul Cage (reading in progress). Silent Dead featured the same engrossing (but extra dark) premise and mystery as other ones I have mentioned above and also had a fairly steady plot development. But the book makes use of some rather common tropes such as bureaucracy in the police department, non-communication of evidence at crucial junctures, misogynistic colleagues, etc. But to Honda’s credit, these still somehow tie into the actual plot development. (It is nowhere as bad as anything you will see in a Michael Connelly book). But the tension between the competing detectives is so well articulated that, midway through the book, I bet you will be heavily rooting for Himekawa!
So those are authors who have at least 2 books in print and whom I have read. Below are some more books that are worth reading:
Confessions by Kanae Minato: This book is not a straightforward crime or detective novel, but it does involve several crimes and a rather unusual approach to solving them that leads to even more grotesque consequences. The book itself is a great read. So good, that it was made into a movie that got nominated for the Oscars (Best Foreign language film).
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada: This book officially has the most grotesque premise I have personally come across. Which is probably the only reason why I would strongly recommend it! The writing and the plot development are not the best, but making your way through the book just to uncover the dark premise is worth the effort!
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: I have always strongly believed that the presence of bureaucratic situations in police/detective books are completely unnecessary and only work to hinder plot development. But what if the bureaucracy IS the plot itself? That is Six Four for you. Full marks for plot development and general premise, but the book lets you down big time in the ending. It is not that the ending runs counter to the plot development. It is not even an open ended conclusion. Instead, it actually looks like it is incomplete and kind of leaves you hanging. It is still a gripping read and there is definitely the bare necessary amount of resolution in the ending. But the real reason why I recommend this book is because, by the time you are done with it, you will know the structure and hierarchy of the entire Japanese Police force by heart! And you would have never thought you would care so much about the battle between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs!
So there you have it. Enough book recommendations to keep you occupied and hooked on to Japanese crime novels for the next several months. Now please do yourself a favor and start reading Higashino!