It’s been a good four years since fans of Keigo Higashino’s Detective Kaga series had something new to pour over (in English, anyway), the last being 2018’s Newcomer, but their patience has been rewarded with A Death in Tokyo, the long overdue localization of the original Japanese edition published way back in 2011. There was even a live-action adaptation starring Hiroshi Abe as the famous detective back in 2012, meaning unless you’re fluent in Japanese (or don’t mind subtitles), this will likely be your first acquaintance with it.
Despite being perhaps the most popular living writer in Japan, Higashino’s books usually arrive with much less fanfare than someone like Haruki Murakami, which I’ve always found odd. In the west crime / detective novelists like Michael Connelly and James Patterson release bestsellers, yearly and without fail. I’ve used the term ‘sausage-factory fiction’ to describe the genre, given their assembly-line production, but it’s a term of endearment more than anything.
Still, Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation is released to fanfare while Higashino’s A Death in Tokyo barely registers. Fun fact: did you know Higashino donated royalties from this book to help victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake?
Things take off when the body of Takeaki Aoyagi, a production inspector at Kaneseki Metals, is found on the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo, apparently a victim of a stabbing. The only suspect, Fuyuki Yashima, was seen fleeing the scene but was seriously injured after being struck by a passing truck and is now in coma, unlikely to ever wake up. It happens that Fuyuki also worked at Kanseki Metals, and police found Aoyagi’s wallet and briefcase in his possession. By every measure, this seems like an open-and-shut case. But are things ever so simple?
On the case are Inspector Kyoichiro Kaga and Detective Shuhei Matsumiya, who not only happen to be cousins but the latter a crime solver of some acclaim. Inspector Kaga is more Sherlock than Harry Bosch, more Columbo than Alex Cross, able to spot details others miss and make the connections they can’t. Thus begins their investigation, which means canvassing the area and speaking with everyone they can. The victim’s family isn’t the most helpful, especially their angst-riddled teenage son. Is Fuyuki’s pregnant girlfriend hiding anything? And what’s the deal with all those paper origami cranes, anyway?
In the case of Takeaki Aoyagi one thing begins to emerge: Fuyuki Yashima may be innocent. Proving that, however, will be the tricky part. An ever-swelling cast of potential suspects and colorful characters helps flesh out this fictionalized version of Tokyo and Higashino is kind enough to include a character glossary to help keep track of everyone (another fine translation by Giles Murray also helps considerably).
As always, one of the most enjoyable aspects of a Detective Kaga joint, not unlike an Agatha Christie mystery, is how Higashino keeps us guessing who the guilty party might be, usually by allowing us to ‘listen’ to their internal monologues throughout the investigation. Except for the great Inspector himself, whose thoughts we never hear first-person but only when he explains them to others when it’s absolutely necessary.
With so much of the actual ‘mystery’ of whodunnit relying on subterfuge and misdirection the way Kaga arrives at his conclusions can seem coincidental, making it seem Higashino is a little too comfortable relying on deus ex machina, working backwards from less-than-obvious clues (some which are never presented) to resolve things cleanly. In this way, the way Higashino is usually able to balance analytical logic against emotions feels a little less satisfying this time around, making this mystery feel more like a generic police procedural episode than something fans have come to expect from Higashino’s previous works.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about A Death in Tokyo has little to do with the book’s content itself, but its title. Specifically, the significant downgrade from the original Japanese title, Kirin no Tsubasa, which translates to ‘The Wings of the Kirin’, which not only sounds cooler but also becomes a major plot detail as the mystery begins to deep-dive into Japanese spiritualism.
Cultural lessons aside, there’s a solid, if unremarkable, murder mystery worth exploring in A Death in Tokyo, even if it doesn’t rank alongside the author’s best. Higashino’s otherwise straightforward Detective Kaga entry is so intrinsically Japanese in both scope and execution that it’s a shame its sometimes effervescent contents were reduced to such a generic title.