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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Noh Mask Murder

Takagi Akimitsu

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To purchase The Noh Mask Murder

Title: The Noh Mask Murder
Author: Takagi Akimitsu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1949 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Noh Mask Murder - US
The Noh Mask Murder - UK
The Noh Mask Murder - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 能面殺人事件
  • Translated by Jesse Kirkwood

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Our Assessment:

B : very neatly conceived and then resolved

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 21/4/2024 Declan Burke
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/6/2024 Sarah Weinman

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Noh Mask Murder offers a playful, meta-narrative puzzle that will delight fans of the classic locked-room subgenre, but which also digs beneath the surface mystery to explore the “collective derangement” that can affect an entire family -- or, for that matter, an entire nation." - Declan Burke, Irish Times

  • "(A) wickedly plotted mystery with a metafictional twist that feels far fresher than those of more contemporary versions with the same idea. (...) Takagi the author has many more surprises in store, even as he plays ruthlessly fair with the reader." - Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Takagi Akimitsu appears in his own novel, but The Noh Mask Murder isn't the usual first-person narrative about a crime (or rather series thereof) and how it is solved. Takagi does offer a brief Prologue in the first person, but it's little more than an introduction. Here he mentions receiving: "a package containing a letter, a sealed note and a thick journal" from Hiroyuki Ishikari, "the public prosecutor involved in the case"; the bulk of the narrative -- the story proper -- is that 'thick journal', penned by a friend of Takagi's, Koichi Yanagi, bookended by the letter from Ishikari at the outset and then the sealed note, also written by Ishikari, concluding the novel. It makes for three levels of narration, the author figuring more and less prominently at each of these levels: Yanagi's first-person journal nested in Ishikari's second-person letters addressed to Takagi, along with Takagi's own Prologue.
       It's an interesting conceit, to have Takagi defer to another's account of events in which he participated -- and amusing, too, as he has to admit:

     However, on a personal level, the memoir is not exactly a comforting read. In it, Koichi coolly describes my every action, never hesitating to criticize them where he sees fit. The result, I have to say, is that I come across as a complete blundering idiot -- hardly a flattering depiction, but so be it.
       The action takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War, in the summer of 1946. Yanagi has been living with the Chizui family at their mansion; he had known Professor Chizui, who had died ten years earlier. It is the professor's younger brother, Taijiro, who now also lives at the mansion with the rest of his family, who asks Yanagi to involve a private detective m-- to look into the mysterious appearance of someone wearing a Noh mask that had long been in the family, something he didn't want to trouble the police about -- and Yamagi knows just the man for the job, someone who conveniently happens to be staying nearby:
An old schoolmate of mine, Akimitsu Takagi -- he's intelligent, courageous, and as persistent as anyone you could ever meet. He's read just about any detective novel he's been able to lay his hands on, and even fancies himself Japan's answer to Philo Vance. He used to demonstrate his flair by solving the occasional minor mystery at school.
       No sooner does Takagi get involved when there's already the first dead body -- that of Taijiro. Found dead in his locked room, it is a baffling case -- evidently murder, but with no obvious way the killer could have escaped the room ..... And the Noh mask is there on the floor .....
       As Yanagi told the public prosecutor, Ishikari, who then handles the case: "there is something deeply wrong with Taijiro's entire branch of the family". They are a strange bunch -- and as Takagi soon points out: "Everyone in this family is harboring secrets -- secrets you're all desperate to conceal". And there's also the matter of the alleged family fortune -- the professor having apparently converted the fortune into: "a highly valuable object of some kind" -- which the family have been searching for for ten years now, without being able to figure out what it could be, much less where it might be hidden.
       Readers are prepared for at least the outlines of what follows: in his Prologue Takagi had already noted that the Chizui family did not fare well:
     But once the curtains had opened on this tragedy, the Chizui family was plunged into catastrophe after catastrophe -- and at a terrifying speed. Three coffins turned out to be too few. Before long, the entire illustrious family had reached its demise.
       Yanagi chronicles the demise, as one after another family-member dies. The focus is on those that are murdered -- their deaths, like Taijiro's, looking like heart attacks, but clearly murder -- but others fall by the wayside in various ways as well; a lot of people die in this novel. Basically, the last Chizui-man standing is the worst of the lot, Rintaro. Yanagi is able to explain a lot of what happened -- and, specifically, how the murders were committed, including how the 'locked room'-murder was managed -- but Rintaro remains unimpressed, retorting to Ishikari:
     That's a nasty habit you prosecutors have, isn't it ? Prattling on about evidence, waggling your magnifying glass about, relentlessly snooping around for your precious clues. You're so obsessed with the worms at your feet that you don't notice the vultures circling overhead.
       The resolution is quite ingeniously turned, and the structural set-up of the novel, which might have seemed somewhat awkward when Takagi lays it out at the beginning, proves to be well-conceived.
       Somewhat disappointingly, Takagi removes himself from the action quite a bit before the resolution -- "as it happens I've just been called away on an urgent personal matter. I must return to Tokyo at once", he claims -- though he remains critical to the ultimate resolution (with Ishikari telling Yanagi: "In your journal, Mr Takagi comes across as a complete idiot, but it seems a correction is called for").
       In his Prologue, and when speaking to Yanagi, Takagi had mentioned his ambitions to write a detective novel -- with: "the detective solving a genuine real-life mystery, and narrating his actions as he does so -- a first-hand account, if you like". The author puts a clever spin on that seed of an idea with his multi-layered novel and its various narrators -- and it's this that makes The Noh Mask Murder of interest. As to the other aspects, Takagi lays it on a bit thick, from the messed-up family to the professor's treasure -- it is found -- to the smell in the air around the victims to, especially, the mystery of the locked room. The many layers serve their functions, but it is all rather much .....
       Takagi crams too much into The Noh Mask Murder, which weighs it down some, but there's a good deal of enjoyable cleverness here, and the pay-off of the resolution is considerable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 May 2024

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The Noh Mask Murder: Reviews: Other books by Takagi Akimitsu under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Takagi Akimitsu (高木彬光) lived 1920 to 1995.

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© 2024 the complete review

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