The Tattoo Murder Case

The Tattoo Murder Case

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One of Japan’s most popular mystery writers delivers “scenes of fastidiously executed decadence” in a “tale of sexual obsession” (The New York Times Book Review).
Kinue Nomura survived World War II only to be murdered in Tokyo, her severed limbs discovered in a room locked from the inside. Gone is the part of her that bore one of the most beautiful full-body tattoos ever rendered. Kenzo Matsushita, a young doctor who was first to discover the crime scene, feels compelled to assist his detective brother, who is in charge of the case. But Kenzo has a secret: he was Kinue’s lover, and soon his involvement in the investigation becomes as twisted and complex as the writhing snakes that once adorned Kinue’s torso.
The Tattoo Murder Case was originally published in 1948; this is the first English translation.
“Clever, kinky, highly entertaining.” —The Washington Post Book World
“A delightful, different book, not only because of its unusual setting and premise, but because Takagi is a powerful plotter and constructor of fascinating, complex characters.” —The A.V. Club
“Has all the mind-boggling braininess and dazzling artifice of mystery’s Golden Age, spiced with voyeuristic close-ups of a dying art in which postwar Japan remains supreme: full-body tattoos . . . Intricate, fantastic, and utterly absorbing. More, please.” —Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569479322
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/01/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 353
Sales rank: 132,885
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Akimitsu Takagi (1920–1995) studied engineering at Kyoto University and later worked for the Nakajima Aircraft Company. Over the course of his writing career, he published fifteen popular mysteries, including Honeymoon to NowhereThe Informer, and The Tattoo Murder Case, and he won the Japan Mystery Writers Club Award.

Read an Excerpt


It was the summer of 1947, and the citizens of Tokyo, already crushed with grief and shock over the loss of the war, were further debilitated by the languid heat. The city was ravaged. Seedy-looking shacks had sprung up on the messy sites of bombed-out buildings. Makeshift shops overflowed with colorful black-market merchandise, but most people were still living from hand to mouth.

Even in formerly posh neighborhoods around the Ginza, the same pathetic scenario was being played out. During the day, ragged crowds of people with empty eyes would meander aimlessly about the crossroads, mingling with the American soldiers who strutted along triumphantly in their dashing uniforms. When evening rolled around, the rubble-strewn streets teemed with prostitutes, petty criminals, and vagabonds seeking a cheap night's lodging. The uneasy silence of the night was frequently shattered by the report of a pistol.

"Tokyo has really changed. The Ginza's changed, too," muttered Dr. Heishiro Hayakawa, as he stood beside a shuttered building on a side street in the West Ginza district. He was nattily dressed in an off-white linen suit with a precisely knotted necktie of ecru satin, and he carried a rattan walking stick.

Dr. Hayakawa struck several matches, without success. When one finally flared, he held it up to the nameplate on the building. The bright flame illuminated the professor's aquiline profile, with its dramatic, deeply carved features. There was something vaguely Mephistophelean about his magnified shadow, which loomed on the wall like that of a gigantic Balinese puppet.

"Six-Chomé, Number fifty-eight. This must be the place," Dr. Hayakawa murmured as he rang the bell below the nameplate.

There was a small sound as a peephole slid open. From inside, two eyes peered into the darkness. "Who's there, please?" a woman asked in a low voice.

"My name is Heishiro Hayakawa, but the newspapers call me Dr. Tattoo. In any case, Miss Nomura should know who I am. Just tell her Professor Hayakawa is here."

"And may I ask who sent you?"

"Takezo Mogami is my nephew."

The woman's next question sounded like a riddle, or a nursery rhyme: "The snake, the frog, and the slug?" she said cryptically.

"The snake eats the frog, the frog eats the slug, the slug dissolves the snake," the professor replied without hesitation.

The Arabian Nights door opened to reveal a steep, narrow staircase, lit dimly by a naked bulb. The sphinx behind the door turned out to be an innocent-looking young girl with a vaguely foreign appearance, dressed in a Chinese sheath-dress of white silk embroidered with blue and yellow dragons. Following this lovely apparition, the professor climbed the stairs.

At the end of the hall, on the right side, was a closed door bearing a discreet sign that read simply serupan. Professor Hayakawa, being something of a linguist, recognized the word right away as the Japanized French for "serpent," and he shivered with pleasure at the prospect of being admitted into the snake-woman's inner sanctum.

The girl in white knocked on the door, then vanished down the hall. The professor's heart was pounding with excitement. Kinue Nomura and he were practically related, by common-law marriage, if not by blood. Surely that would count for something.

After a moment the door was opened by a striking-looking young woman with a long face, narrow eyes, and the delicate classical features of one of Utamaro's woodblock-print beauties. She looked at Professor Hayakawa with undisguised suspicion.

"Welcome," she said automatically, but her voice didn't sound very welcoming. The woman was tall and slender, and she was dressed Japanese-style, in a kimono patterned with white polka dots on a black ground and sashed with a red-and-black striped obi.

"Kinue — Miss Nomura — it's me! Don't you remember?"

"Professor Hayakawa?" Kinue Nomura's pale oval face flushed cherry-blossom pink with recognition, but instead of looking relieved she seemed even more suspicious. "So, the famous skin-peeler survived the war. How long has it been since we've seen each other, Sensei?" she asked in a distant tone, using the term of respectful address for teachers and masters of any art. In her mouth, though, it sounded facetious, almost insulting.

He said, "It must have been six or seven years, at least. You've really changed, haven't you?" The remark was obviously meant as a compliment, for over that time Kinue had blossomed from an attractive teenager into a breathtakingly beautiful woman.

"Now that you mention it, so have you."

Behind the terse words was the clear implication that the professor had changed for the worse. It was true. The hardships of war had turned his hair half-white and deepened his wrinkles, making him look considerably older than his forty-six years. His skin had a slightly jaundiced cast, and even his jaunty costume looked weary and worn in the light.

Kinue Nomura eyed the professor warily. "Well, Doctor Tattoo, I assume you've come here to offer me your famous obscene proposition?" Her tone was acerbic.

"You know me, I'm a slave to my obsession. But let's not rush things. Won't you let me come into your bar and have a drink? I am an old friend of your family's, after all. And now that you're, uh, seeing my nephew Takezo, I'm practically your uncle."

Kinue pursed her shapely lips, which were painted a deep cherry red to match her obi. "Well, Uncle, I'm afraid the Serpent Bar is full up at the moment," she said coldly. "Besides, it's for members only."

Through the crack the professor could see several empty tables, and he knew that even with the tenuous family connection, an uphill battle lay ahead. Start with innocuous small talk, he told himself, and the door will swing open soon enough. "So tell me," he said casually, "what's your talented older brother Tsunetaro doing these days?"

"He was sent down south to the Philippines in 1943, and I haven't seen him since. Nobody came to deliver his ashes, and he's officially listed as missing, so I think he must have been killed in the war. I've given up hope by now."

In the background the professor could hear a drunken male voice shouting, "Hey, madam! Come back and show us your sexy tattoo!" Kinue Nomura paid no attention. Somewhere in the noisy room behind her a defective gramophone kept playing the same melancholy postwar ballad over and over, but she didn't seem to notice that either.

"And what about your sister?" the professor asked, prolonging the conversation.

"Poor Tamae, I guess she was born under an unlucky star. She was in Hiroshima when the bomb fell, and no one's seen her since. Even if she had survived by some miracle, she probably would have died soon after from her injuries." Kinue's tone was oddly clinical and offhanded, as if she were discussing the fate of a stranger.

"You two were never close, were you, even as children?" the professor asked.

"That's putting it mildly." Kinue's exquisite face was suddenly distorted into a mask of unpleasantness.

"I thought sisters so close in age were supposed to be inseparable," ventured Professor Hayakawa.

Kinue Nomura shrugged her elegant shoulders. "To tell you the truth, I never felt close to her at all," she said. "I always thought Tamae was an evil changeling, left on the doorstep, who just happened to look like me."

The professor was taken aback. He had forgotten about Kinue's habit of saying outrageous things, true or not, just to shock people. Returning to his own agenda, he said, "I can't remember the last time I saw your sister. I think it was when you two were still in middle school, long before your father gave you that magnificent snake tattoo. What about Tamae, did she ever get any tattoos?"

"You really do have a one-track mind, don't you?" Kinue sounded angry, but it could have been an act. "What ever happened to, 'My condolences on the loss of your entire family'? But to answer your prying question, Tamae was very competitive, not to mention insanely envious of everything I did, so she couldn't very well have stood by watching me get tattooed without wanting one too."

"What did your sister's tattoo look like?" The professor leaned forward eagerly, his eyes gleaming behind wire-rimmed spectacles.

"I'd rather not discuss that. It's too creepy, like counting the birthdays of a child who died a long time ago."

"If it's true that both your brother and sister are gone, then the Orochimaru tattoo on your back has become a national treasure. Please take care of yourself, and live a long, healthy life."

"What a lousy liar you are!" Kinue erupted. "What you really mean is, 'Be careful not to injure the skin on your back, and please die as soon as possible.'"

Professor Hayakawa was so stunned that he couldn't think of anything to say. Kinue Nomura stood there glaring at him, her crimson lips curved in a mirthless laugh.

After a moment she said, "By the way, the answer is still no." And with that, she slammed the door in his face.


Let's celebrate the Japanese art tattoo! read the crudely mimeographed flyer, under a blurry photograph of a glowering, muscular man covered from shaven head to foot with tattoos of exotic sea creatures in a matrix of stylized Hokusai-style waves. The fine print gave the date and time for the first postwar meeting of the Edo Tattoo Society, and solicited entrants for a tattoo contest. Kenzo Matsushita had seen the posters around town, and had thought nothing of them at first. Eventually, though, it occurred to him that a passing knowledge of the tattoo culture might be useful to a future doctor of forensic medicine, if only because tattooed people (whose ranks included a great many gun-toting gangsters) had a tendency to become involved or implicated in crimes. Not without some trepidation, Kenzo showed up at the tattoo competition around twilight on a warm August evening. His long hair was uncombed as usual, and he was casually dressed in a short-sleeved open-necked white shirt, khaki slacks, and a pair of American-made combat boots. In this costume he joined the predominantly male crowd filing through the gate: dapper young men with squared-off haircuts and flashy outfits, hoodlums in sunglasses and sharkskin suits, khaki-uniformed American GIs — black, Caucasian, and a few Asian-Americans — with their sleeves rolled up and newly purchased Japanese cameras around their necks.

Kenzo Matsushita was twenty-nine years old, and like everyone else in Japan he was still reeling from the effects of the Great War. By necessity, Kenzo lived in a small, rent-free room at his married brother's home. His primary leisure-time activities were reading foreign mystery novels and playing board games, and he would have been hard pressed to remember the last time he had gotten dressed up or slicked back his thick black hair for a night on the town. As for female companionship, there had been very little of that in Kenzo's life so far, aside from a few sordid, unsatisfactory wartime encounters.

Kenzo was intelligent and well-educated, but he had never developed the delicate instincts that would have enabled him to understand the flamboyant Edo Style, an aesthetic that found its most spectacular expression in the full-body tattoos to which the Tattoo Society was dedicated. Indeed, aside from what he had learned during one brief visit to the famous Specimen Room at Tokyo University, Kenzo had no particular interest in or affinity for tattoos.

Kenzo Matsushita had grown up in the farm country of Nagano Prefecture, where tattoos were few and far between. Since graduating from Ikko Preparatory Academy and subsequently from Tokyo University Medical School — two of the most elite schools in the country — Kenzo had become a military medic. He had survived the war with limbs and faculties intact, although even after he was repatriated from the Philippines a sort of tropical torpor seemed to linger in his mind.

Kenzo's older brother, Detective Chief Inspector Daiyu Matsushita, was a prominent police detective who had taken advantage of the postwar chaos to skip the usual hierarchical steps and vault to the position of chief of the main criminal investigation division of the Metropolitan Police Department. With his brother's help, Kenzo was planning eventually to join the police medical staff. Since there were no vacancies at the moment, he had returned to the university, where he was refreshing his skills by studying forensic medicine and working desultorily on a PhD dissertation about an arcane aspect of the limbic system.

As the surging throng swept him into the garden, Kenzo felt one of his sudden mood-swings coming on. He had first experienced this disturbing phenomenon while stranded in the depths of the mountains of the Philippines, resigned to imminent death. It had been diagnosed as a post- traumatic nervous disorder, and in certain situations it would flare up suddenly, without warning.

In the manic phase, Kenzo would feel on top of the world, as if he were already a full-fledged medical doctor, a PhD, and a member of the faculty of a prestigious medical school. When he was depressed, though, he became convinced that his talents were mediocre, his existence worthless, and his dissertation a total waste of time. The wisest thing, he would think at those emotional low tides, would be to throw himself under a train, because there was nothing for him to contribute, and no place in the world where he could ever feel at home.

On this summer evening, Kenzo felt uncomfortable from the moment he walked through the gate. Crowds made him nervous, and he felt like a leaf being tossed about on a stormy ocean. Rather than following the other spectators into the large hall where the meeting was to take place, Kenzo fled toward the far corner of the garden in search of solitude.

Just as there were exclusive clubs in Tokyo for the descendants of samurai lords and the winners of literary prizes, there was an association called the Edo Tattoo Society whose membership was limited to men and women with substantial art tattoos. (Edo was the archaic name for Tokyo, and many tattooed Edoites referred to themselves as edokko — literally, "children of Edo.") There were only a hundred members in 1947, but this was by no means the total number of people in Tokyo who had tattoos. For example, there were gentlemen and ladies of high social standing who might have gotten a tiny tattoo on some spur-of-the-moment whim during their salad days, but who had grown ashamed of those badges of reckless youth and did their utmost to conceal them. There were vast armies of gangsters, whose dubious profession made club-joining impractical. Many laborers and firemen boasted full-body tattoos, but were too busy trying to make a living to go to a meeting and stand around with their clothes off.

The Edo Tattoo Society's activities tended to be annual rather than monthly. Every year a number of tattooed men were called upon to carry the miniature mikoshi shrines in various Shinto festivals. They might also be asked to appear at the christening of monuments and the formal celebration of marriage announcements, or to act as pallbearers at funerals. Aside from such occasions, the annual general meeting was the only opportunity for members to get together and mingle en masse. Those meetings had to be suspended during the wartime era, but after the war ended, the tattoo society sprang back to life with a flourish.

There was a suggestion that the first postwar meeting should be a memorial service for the members who had died, but that idea was rejected, because the country was still in turmoil and many people remained unaccounted for. Also, it seemed more upbeat to have a friendly get-together to see old faces (and familiar tattoos) and to celebrate the miracle of survival.

As an afterthought it was decided to include a tattoo competition, to liven things up. The usual meeting place, Nanushi Waterfall in Oji, had been badly damaged in the war, so the organizers arranged to rent a garden restaurant that was housed in a former nobleman's estate near Kichijoji. The date was set, and advertising flyers were printed in the basement of a society member who owned a rusty old mimeograph machine.

As August 20 approached, excitement about the contest mounted, particularly when it was announced that there would be a first prize of ten thousand yen for the best tattoos, male and female. Even with spiraling inflation, ten thousand yen was a sizable sum. The members of the society, being true children of Edo, tended to be relatively unconcerned about cash, but times were hard and they couldn't very well eat their tattoos. Besides, everyone secretly believed that his or her tattoo was the most magnificent in Japan.


Excerpted from "The Tattoo Murder Case"
by .
Copyright © 1998 Deborah Boliver Boehm.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Tattoo Murder Case 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
PatrickZJD More than 1 year ago
While I disagree with both previous reviewers as to their characterization of this novel -- I am a huge fan of William Gibson's "Neuromancer, and this book is nothing like that outside of atmosphere; also, I am a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Akimitsu Takagi does not possess their writing style -- I must say that their opinions as to the quality of this mystery is right on the mark. Reading, much as suggested both within the book and in the blurb, like a classical John Dickson Carr "Sir Gordon Merrivale" or S.S. Van Dine "Philo Vance" mystery, "The Tattoo Murder Case" has every element needed for a classic mystery of the 1930s, including a femme fatale, heavy-handed investigator, helpless sap with more than a hint of intelligence, gigolo, and, last but not least, effete genius to solve the case...with a surprising touch of sexuality and the outre as well. While it is difficult to say that the characters are more than standard mystery character ciphers, and the mechanics of the plot is no more conventional than any other locked-room mystery, focussing on this would do Takagi's novel a disservice, precisely because it IS a fantastic representative of this sub-genre, with a fantastic capture of post-WW2 Tokyo besides. Not once did the book's near-obsessional information of tattoos seem unnecessary or forced; indeed, it is funny to read this book now in a culture where tattoos are found on the bodies of cinematic superstars like Megan Fox and on reality TV shows, and not merely on drunken sailors or criminal reprobates, with all of the ill feelings and opinions society holds of their wearers (and which I for the most part agree with). I suppose the only thing that I found disappointing was that Kenzo Matush-ta, the book's seeming protagonist in the starting pages, was not the one in the end who ended the mystery...but then, Dr. Watson rarely did as well. Overall, I found "The Tattoo Murder Case" a splendid addition to my mystery library, and in the end I can give this book the highest recommendation possible, as it makes you want to have been present for the events unfolding therein.
katydid-it on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book became much more interesting to me once I realized that it was originally written in 1948. From this perspective, it can be viewed as an interesting view into the post-World War II Japanese culture - a period when the country was adapting to a changed world and changing cultural norms. The crime/detective aspect of the story is interesting and fun to read, but wasn't very sophisticated. From what I have researched, the descriptions of tattoo culture at the time are historically accurate.
noblechicken on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From 1948! Hard to believe, the murder investigated is quite gruesome. Reads much like the mysteries of the time like Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh, except with the cultural Japanese flavor of tattoo art and more. A very interesting mystery and engaging read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
While this book was actually written in 1948, you will be amazed by how utterly modern it is. The translation is perfect and the mood is very reminiscent of William Gibson, ala 'Neuromancer.' It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Gibson read this book before writing about his future Tokyo.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you like the authors who started this genre: Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet, then this book is a *must read*. *Tattoo Murder* has all the great mystery and dark irony of Chandler and Hammet stories, plus a healthy dose of Sherlock Holmsian deductive reasoning. All these classical elements come together in a story that retains a wonderful flavor of Japan. This book gives a fascinating glimpse into Japanese culture, the Yakuza, and tattoos