Five Great Japanese Mystery Writers (Who Aren’t Higashino Keigo)

Five Great Japanese Mystery Writers (Who Aren’t Higashino Keigo)

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Magnifying glass and other detetcive stuff
Picture: muni / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Like Higashino Keigo? Want to enjoy more Japanese mystery writers? Check out these five others whose works are available in English.

Until recently, non-Japanese speakers interested in reading the works of Japanese mystery writers were mostly out of luck. Thanks to a determined publisher, however, that’s changing.

Japanese mystery writers are flourishing in English

Before now, pretty much the only author whose works received English translations with any regularity was Higashino Keigo. As of 2023, nearly a dozen of his novels, including entries in both the Detective Galileo and Police Detective Kaga series, are available in English.

Keigo is a fabulous writer and his works are worth a read for any mystery fans. Dr. Yukawa Manabu – aka “Detective Galileo” – is a fascinating character, a physicist who uses his scientific mind to help him solve tricky crimes. Novels like The Devotion of Suspect X and Under the Midnight Sun will challenge even the most avid detective fiction readers. (Note: Links to Amazon are affiliate links.)

But Keigo is far from the only talented Japanese mystery novelist out there. There are so many others – and some of them are finally beginning to make their way West.

In recent years, publisher Pushkin Press launched their Pushkin Vertigo label, which focuses on crime fiction. The label releases English translations of works from authors such as Friedrich Duerrenmatt, Baroness Orczy, Frederic Dard, and many more. Several Japanese mystery writers have had their works released in English under the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. [1] Here are five that mystery fans should definitely check out!

Yokomizo Seishi: a treasure among Japanese mystery writers

The Honjin Murders by Yokomizo Seishi

One of the most iconic names in Japanese mystery fiction is Kindaichi Kosuke. Author Yokomizo Seishi brought this eccentric detective to life. A scruffy-looking, stammering fellow who doesn’t tend to leave much of an impression on people who meet him, Kindaichi is nonetheless able to solve the trickiest of murders using only his powers of observation.

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Many of the Kindaichi novels feature locked-room murder mysteries, which Yokomizo found particularly compelling. They often address the consequences of Japanese societal issues. Examples include arranged marriages, the lingering remnants of the feudal class system, and family trauma and separation caused by war.

An extremely prolific author despite his frail health, Yokomizo wrote a total of 77 books featuring Kindaichi. Until recently, only The Inugami Curse had ever been translated into English. Now, Pushkin Vertigo aims to bring a large number of Kindaichi books to an English-speaking audience. Currently, Pushkin translates approximately one Kindaichi novel per year. As of 2023, five are available. Translators involved in the project include Louise Heal Kawai, Yumiko Yamazaki, Bryan Karetnyk, and Jim Rion. [2]

Where to Start: The Honjin Murders

Ayatsuji Yukito: Puzzling situations and earth-shattering schemes

The Decagon House Murders: a mystery by writer Ayatsuji Yukito

The mystery genre fascinates Ayatsuji Yukito, a fact that is clear to see in all of his published works. As one of his characters says, he sees detective novels as thrilling puzzles to solve, and is concerned with topics such as – in his own words – “famous detectives, grand mansions, suspicious residents, bloody murders, puzzling situations, [and] earth-shattering schemes.” [3]

Ayatsuji is a founding and still-active member of the Honkaku Mystery Writers’ Club, an organization dedicated to writing honkaku – aka “authentic” or “orthodox” – mysteries containing elements such as those quoted above.

Another quite prolific author, Ayatsuji has written several loosely connected mystery series as well as stand-alone novels in the mystery and horror genres. The best-known of these is the Bizarre House or Bizarre Mansion Murders series, which focuses on a series of buildings with unique layouts and architectural quirks that play a major role in the crimes committed there (similar to recent Netflix release Glass Onion.) So far, two books, The Decagon House Murders and The Mill House Murders, are available via Pushkin Vertigo translated by Ho-Ling Wong. His horror series Another is also available via Yen Press, and is translated by Karen McGillicuddy. [4]

Where to Start: The Decagon House Murders

Shimada Soji: Fair play is the name of the game

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders: A mystery by Shimada Soji

A “fair play” mystery is one where the author provides all the clues to the audience before the detective reveals the killer and summarizes who-, how-, and whydunnit. The author encourages readers of a fair play mystery to solve the crime themselves.

Examples of fair play mysteries include most of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories, the films Knives Out and Glass Onion, and the many novels of Japanese author Shimada Soji. Shimada, a supporter of Honkaku mysteries alongside Ayatsuji, fully believes that a good detective novel is not just an interesting story, but a fully solvable puzzle presented to the reader. Many of his books even include a brief interlude where a narrator tells the reader that they now have all the clues needed to identify whodunnit.

Yet another prolific author on this list, Shimada’s works are generally divided into the Detective Mitarai Kiyoshi Series and the Detective Yoshike Takashi Series, named after their respective protagonists. He has also written several stand-alone mystery novels and short stories. He is often referred to as the “Uncrowned King” of Japanese mystery writers, as he has received many nominations for prestigious prizes but has rarely won them.

Pushkin Vertigo has published two of his novels, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Murder in the Crooked House. Both are from the Detective Mitarai Kiyoshi Series. Zodiac Murders was translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie and Crooked House by Louise Heal Kawai. [5]

Where to Start: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

Takagi Akimitsu: Tattooed mysteries

The Tattoo Murder Case: a mystery by Japanese writer Takagi Akimitsu

Takagi Akimitsu was a man of many passions. Throughout his life, he studied metallurgy, law, the history of espionage, the detective fiction genre, and other subjects. He had an interest in the history and culture of tattooing in Japan. His photographs are currently the largest archive of images on the subject. The nonfiction book The Tattoo Writer collects these images.

His most famous novel, The Tattoo Murder Case, a mystery about the death and mutilation of a woman with full-body tattoos, reflects his passion and knowledge regarding the subject.

The Tattoo Murder Case is the first in his Detective Kamizu Kyosuke series, which consists of over a dozen novels. He also wrote a shorter series featuring Prosecutor Kirishima Saburo. The works in this series combine the mystery and legal thriller genres and reflect Takagi’s extensive study of and interest in the Japanese legal system. Pushkin Vertigo recently published a new translation of The Tattoo Murder Case translated by Deborah Boehm. Soho Crime has also translated and published his Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer from the Kirishima Saburo series. [6]

Where to Start: The Tattoo Murder Case

Togawa Masako

The Master Key: A mystery by Japanese writer Togawa Masako

Togawa Masako saw the limited role that women often played in the mystery genre and decided to change that.

In Togawa’s many novels, women are not just beautiful victims for men to kill and mourn and avenge. Women are heroines, women have secrets, women are active participants in crimes and shady business – and, yes, some women are killers. In addition to pioneering the role of women in Japanese mystery novels, Togawa Masako was also a singer, songwriter, actress, cabaret owner, feminist, city planner, and lesbian icon.

Amidst her plethora of careers, Togawa Masako wrote over 30 novels and dozens of short stories. She was open about drawing inspiration for her novels from her own experiences as a politically and socially active woman living in Tokyo. Her debut novel, The Master Key, won the Edogawa Ranpo Prize. Both The Master Key and The Lady Killer are available via Pushkin Vertigo, translated by Simon Grove. Grove also translated Slow Fuse and A Kiss of Fire, published by Dodd Mead. [7]

Where to Start: The Master Key

Finding your favorite Japanese mystery writers

These are only a few of the hundreds of mystery novels written by dozens of talented Japanese mystery writers. Hopefully, the translation of these works is the start of a growing trend. It is definitely possible that more and more Japanese mystery novels will finally make their way to the West in the next few years. If you’re interesting in getting into Japanese mysteries, there has never been a better time than now!

Sources

[1] Pushkin Vertigo. https://pushkinpress.com/all-books/pushkin-vertigo/

[2] Booklog JP. 横溝正史のおすすめランキング. https://booklog.jp/author/%E6%A8%AA%E6%BA%9D%E6%AD%A3%E5%8F%B2

[3] Ayatsuji, Yukito. The Decagon House Murders. Published by Pushkin Vertigo. 2020.

[4] Kodansha Bunko. “Ayatsuji Yukito’s House.” http://kodanshabunko.com/ayatsuji/index.html

[5] Sakidori. 島田荘司のおすすめ小説17選。巧妙なトリックが魅力の作品をご紹介. https://sakidori.co/article/1275815

[6] Booklog Jp. 高木彬光のおすすめランキング. https://booklog.jp/author/%E9%AB%98%E6%9C%A8%E5%BD%AC%E5%85%89

[7] 青い部屋。”戸川昌子.” http://aoiheya.com/masako/

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Kay Benton

Kay is a longtime Japan enthusiast and former participant in the JET Program. Their favorite thing to do when traveling in Japan is visiting as many onsens as possible.

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