The Togakushi Legend Murders

The Togakushi Legend Murders
(Japanese Columbo)
Yasuo Uchida

Upon the passing of Yasuo Uchida on March 13th, I was advised by crime podcaster, Hanzai, to give this lesser known (or very little known in the English language) writer a try. Loving any excuse to jump into a mystery, I looked him up, and loving any excuse to read the translation instead of getting my dictionary out (oh, the laziness that is me) I found that one of Uchida's novels, and only one so far, had been translated into English. As luck would have it, that very book, now out of print but available for kindle, was waiting for me on the lovely shelves of Osaka City Library.

Uchida is so little known in English that as of today none of the information online has been updated to recognize that after a long life, and dozens of books, and numerous TV adaptations, Yasuo Uchida passed away at the age of 83 in Tokyo due to complications of sepsis.

His list of books in Japanese is pages long, and he was respected as a strong and interesting writer who could pull his audiences along, following his detectives into mysteries often taking place in smaller regions of Japan, such as Nagano.

And so, with this in mind, and a recommendation from the current king of Japan crime (be sure to check out the Hanzai podcast when you can) I dug into my Inspector Takemura (the Japanese Columbo) mystery.

Uchida sets up a modern mystery (1980s) by twisting the involvement of two tragedies of the past.

The first is an old tale known to all the locals living in the Togakushi area in Nagano, of the Demoness Maple. The story of this mad woman reeking havoc on locals hundreds of years before has colored the atmosphere of the area, as well as haunted the dreams of the children who were told of the dangers in the bedtime stories that didn't lead to much sleep.

The second is a bit more modern, the story of the rape and torture of a woman, caught near the end of WWII hiding her lover to protect him from having to serve in a war already lost, but killing thousands still.

From these historic and gothic introductions we are led to the body of a man lain by a tree in the mountains of Nagano. However, this is not just any man, but one of the premier business leaders of the area, in town to push forward the development of a huge golf course that should bring more money, and certainly more noise, and much less peace, to the area.

I'll leave the details there, only to add that Uchida, with this murder (and those that follow...) sets up a puzzle, simple enough, but intriguing and hidden from the reader until the very end. Is this the haunting of a ghost of the past, or revenge for hurt done to a lover, or is it someone dead set against the destruction of the landscape? All three seem viable at times and Uchida uses his skilled hand to make sure we always think we know what's up, but are never too sure of ourselves. For me, this is the position to be in while reading a mystery. Always involved, but always uncertain.

This book was translated and published in English in 1994 by Tuttle, a company that loves to share Japan with the English world, but usually focuses on information guides with beautiful pictures and (at least recently) doesn't handle fiction so much. It must not have found an audience, for in the last 23 years no other of his books have been made available in English.

If you have a chance to get ahold of this book, or a kindle and a few extra bucks to send amazon, I hope that Uchida's passing will bring a little more attention to his work, and maybe even another translation sometime in the future.

A good mystery, fun and never obvious.