The Last Train by Michael Pronko

3 Mins read

Detective Hiroshi Shimizu gained a lot during his time studying in Boston. He found an American fiancée, Linda, and now has a good grasp of English and a sense that the Japanese way isn’t the only way of doing things. But back in Tokyo he’s parted ways with Linda already, and found his English and new outlook to be more of a liability than an asset. Despite his main duties being in white collar crime, Shimizu finds himself dragged into any investigation that involves someone foreign, anything that requires an English speaker, and also finds himself taken night after night to izakayas for obligatory drinking sessions with his colleagues – an unavoidable part of Japanese working life, it seems.

Most of these drinking sessions are with Takamatsu, a senior colleague from Homicide, who calls Shimizu past midnight one night to seek his help in a different type of case. At first glance it appears to be suicide, but Takamatsu is certain it’s murder. An American businessman, Steve Devaux, drunk after a night out at hostess bars, fell in front of a late night express train running through Tamachi station. It could be suicide. After all, trains are an alarmingly common suicide method in Japan. Or it could be an accident, but Takamatsu suspects more. Was it bad luck, or did Deveaux know the train schedules, know the express sailed through Tamachi just before the station closed, know that there was a pillar at the end of the station where he could be sure the driver wouldn’t see him before he fell… or was pushed? And what about the beautiful woman seen lingering with Deveaux on the CCTV footage? Takamatsu doesn’t only see questions in Deveaux’s death, he also sees a pattern, a type of death that he’s seen before. Could this be the work of a serial killer?

Of course we are soon given the answer to that question. The events of Deveaux’s death are recounted in the first chapter, along with the identity of the killer. But it’s not the mystery itself that is the main draw in The Last Train, but the recounting of the killer’s motives, and the way the investigators delve into Tokyo’s seedy underbelly to find the perpetrator.

Takamatsu goes missing, and Shimizu teams up with Sakaguchi, an ex-sumo wrestler, and their investigation feels somewhat like a search through some of Tokyo’s clichés. At times The Last Train feels like a guided tour of the city, although not necessarily in a way you’d want to visit it. The appearance of a sumo wrestler, among other kitsch inclusions, can veer towards tokenism, but Pronko has written extensively about Tokyo in several works of nonfiction, so he knows how to present the city in a unique and interesting light.

Murder mysteries written by expats and set in the city they’ve grown to call home are a mixed bag. Thankfully The Last Train is one of the better ones. It creates a rich, detailed account of a place the author clearly loves, presenting both the good and the bad and offering a better insight into Tokyo than any guidebook. The most difficult part, and one that I don’t feel Pronko succeeds with entirely, is conveying the ‘foreignness’ of the language in a novel written in English. Pronko’s characters frequently say the same thing twice, first in Japanese, then in English, in the same line. Readers with some Japanese will understand what a character means when they say, “Daijyobu desu ka? Are you alright?” But why would they repeat their Japanese lines in English after saying them? There are many better ways of presenting foreign language dialogue in English that won’t seem so strange to read.

Good crime fiction can cut to the heart of a place, which I believe is why it’s read so widely. The Last Train delves deep into the city of Tokyo, exposing both the beautiful and the ugly in a tense mystery. Worth reading for something new and different.

For another rich mystery set in Japan, try Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon. Or, have a look at these five books in our primer on Japanese crime fiction.

Raked Gravel Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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