The Noh Mask Murder by Akimitsu Takagi

translated from the original Japanese by Jesse Kirkwood.

Reading reprints of classic mysteries can be so hit and miss for me, and especially when they’re in translation. As cultures converge globally, reading these snapshots of past attitudes to murder and other unsavory dealings can often feel jarring, especially when taking into account the fact that sometimes there just aren’t words to adequately express a particular cultural touchstone (tho Mr Kirkwood certainly does an excellent job here, so far as I can tell!) The attitudes towards mental health and sex, especially, can seem really dispiriting, particularly in comparison with our relatively more compassionate age.

Which was why Akimitsu Takagi’s The Noh Mask Murder was such a breath of fresh air for me. There is sex and madness aplenty in the pages of this slender volume first published in the 1950s, but they’re treated matter-of-factly and not as indicators of evil. Surprisingly progressive and compassionate, this book showcases the post-World War II culture of Japan while also invoking the universality of the human experience.

But dearest to my novel-loving heart was the brilliant construction of this unusual book, a set of found documents delivered to a detective who happens to bear the same name as the author. The diary at the heart of the book is also an observation of the case, with several less than flattering descriptions of the detective himself. It’s smart, playful and inventive, even before you get to the end of the book and are shocked by how many layers of revelation are contained in these mere 200+ pages.

The story itself is about the doomed Chizui family, who can trace their lineage back centuries but whose family line looks set to be extinguished as they’re plagued by a series of Noh-themed murders. A Noh mask in their possession is said to have been cursed long ago by a humiliated actor. When it’s found in a locked room with the murdered body of the family patriarch Tajiro, all signs point to the curse finally manifesting once more.

Akimitsu, ofc, has no time for this. But as he attempts to figure out who killed Tajiro, he soon realizes that he cannot stop the tsunami of terror threatening to destroy the Chizuis. Will he be able to save any of the Chizuis from inevitability, or will he prove as incompetent as his amanuensis believes?

I hadn’t realized quite how strongly the impact of European mystery authors had been on Japanese literature till I read this book, which honestly surpasses Dame Agatha Christie herself in its ingenuity. There are references aplenty to classic mystery novels, some obvious and some far more sly. It does possess a spoiler for The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, so take a few hours to read that novel first before diving into this one, if you haven’t already. You’ll be in for a double header of authorial excellence if you do.

The Noh Mask Murder by Akimitsu Takagi was published June 4 2024 by Pushkin Vertigo and is available from all good booksellers, including

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.