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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Akimitsu Takagi (Deborah Boliver Boehm, Translator): The Tattoo Murder Case

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Until his death in 1995, Akimitsu Takagi was one of Japan's most popular mystery novelists, and The Tattoo Murder Case was his most popular book, winning the Mystery Writers Club award in 1948. It remains one of the most widely read mysteries in Japan, and it's just been translated for release in the U.S. The plot revolves around the Japanese art of full-body tattooing, performed with great care and skill by a handful of masters. The subject is left with a seam running the length of his or her body so that the tattoo can be removed after death and displayed; the largest collection of these still exists in the Specimen Room of Tokyo University's medical school. As the novel opens, a beautiful snake-tattooed woman has been murdered, mutilated, and flayed, her tattoo stolen. Professor Hayakawa, the curator of the Tokyo University collection, teams up with boy genius Kyoshuke Kamizu to find the killer and the specimen before others are killed for their skins. It's very much a golden-age mystery, with dashing young men joining almost comical older companions to get to the bottom of the unspeakable brutality which is always happening somewhere off to the side. But because it's Japan, and occupied Japan to boot, police work is much more formal and polite; the pair must be extremely respectful and class-conscious during their investigation, as beating up hoodlums and criminals for information would have negative social repercussions. The Tattoo Murder Case is 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. Introducing American audiences to great foreign mysteries (as well as unusual domestic voices) has become a Soho Press trademark, and almost everything in its catalog is top-notch. The Tattoo Murder Case is a high-water mark even by those high standards.