Billed as a classic Japanese locked-room mystery, I was genuinely excited to get stuck into The Noh Mask Murder by Akimitsu Takagi.

Originally published in 1949 as Nōmen Satsujin Jiken, it was published in English in April 2024 after being translated by Jesse Kirkwood.

That’s quite an important detail, because much like Agatha Christie novels, also written around the same time, the style of writing is very different to what we are used to today.

And, it’s also why I found it a little difficult to read. But before I get to that, let me give you a summary of the plot.

The Plot

The first interesting thing about the book is that while it is written by Akimitsu Takagi, he is also a character of sorts in the book, which, of course made me think of Anthony Horowitz and his Hawthorne books.

The main difference is that Takagi isn’t a major player in the plot which goes like this…

It’s post WW2 Japan in Kanagawa and Akimitsu is a budding amateur detective with no real discernible skills other than he spends vast amounts of time reading crime novels.

This, he believes, has given him the ability to solve almost any crime. That is, until he gets bumps into an old school friend called Koichi Yanagi.

Yanagi lives in the Chizui family mansion, which is also where he works. After witnesses spot somebody wearing a Noh Mask in the window of the house, a very jittery Taijiro Chizui becomes convinced somebody is going to kill him.

So he writes a letter requesting the help of Takagi, on Koichi’s recommendation, to find out who the would-be murderer is.

Koichi delivers the letter to Takagi but while there they receive a phone call form Taijiro telling them that he’s in danger and knows who is behind the mask.

They rush to the house only to find Taijiio already dead in his locked study. There is no way in or out.

The key is in the door on the inside, the windows are closed as are the outdoor iron shutters.

There are no wounds on the body, no murder weapon and other than slight fragrance of lavender and a hannya mask lying discarded on the floor, nothing is really out of place.

So who killed him, and, more importantly, how did they do it?

The Characters

This book and story unfolds in a very unusual way. It begins with a prologue from Takagi Akimistu relaying how he got involved with the case.

It then shifts to a letter from Hiroyuki Ishikari, the investigator/prosecutor, to Takagi, outlining what happened in the case in the three months since Takagi left Kanagawa, but before the mystery was solved.

And, accompanying Ishikari’s letter is the journal from Koichi, who wrote down all the details of the investigation, which then becomes the majority of the book.

It then finishes with the rest of Ishikari’s letter, wrapping up everything that happened after the murders were solved.

So far, so good. But it’s when we start getting into the nitty gritty of family dynamics that things become a little confusing, at least for me they were.

There are quite a few and working out how they are all related (and remembering it) may even require a pen and paper.

So I’m going to make it easy for you and break them down here:

Chizui Family Tree

Matriarch: Sonoe, bed-ridden with palsy

First Son: Professor Chizui – died ten years earlier

Married to: Kayoko, a woman who lost her mind and is now in Oka Asylum

Their children:
– daughter Hisako who lives in the house but is now insane
Kenkichi, 14-years-old and has a fatal heart condition

Second son: Taijiro Chizui

Married to: never mentioned

Their children:
– son Rintaro, a very disturbed individual
– son Yojiro, also an unpleasant young man
– daughter Sawako, the nicest of all the family members

That means, eight people including Koichi, live in the house. The older Chizui brother is dead and his wife has been committed. You also have the public prosecutor and the author, Takagi Akimistu.

With 12 characters and a lot happening, keeping track of everyone and where they were etc…is mind-boggling.

What I will say is this; every word of this book counts, especially the first few chapters when the family tree is being laid out.

Who loved or loves who, who died and when, who is left, who is crazy, who is awful – it all matters in the context of the story. So pay attention!

Is The Locked Room Mystery Solved?

The short answer is yes, the locked room mystery is solved.

Like so many in the genre, it is highly convoluted and requires a suspension of belief that it is even possible.

Yet, this is almost a subplot of the story. It’s the who killed off the various characters and the back story behind it that is far more intriguing.

And even when you know the who, how and why of it all, there’s still more until you’re left quite broken-hearted by the whole sad, sorry affair.

Rather unusually, it is a book that is better the second time around because it’s the small details you may have missed the first time that ultimately tie the whole thing together.

Is it a great locked room mystery? No. But is it a great insight into families, power, greed, lies and love? Yes.

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