A few months ago, I skipped onto the site of fellow Japan blogger Fran Pickering and saw that she had self-published a Japan-based mystery novel. Always eager for more stories set in my adopted country, I ordered my copy and enjoyed the first installment of the “Josie Clark in Japan” series, which featured a British-born office worker in Tokyo who solves crimes around the country. When the next title – The Haiku Murder – in the series came out, Fran kindly sent me a copy to review.
The Haiku Murder opens with Josie gearing up for a haiku-writing trip with her work colleagues (yes, these really do exist) to Matsuyama. The tour’s participants are an eclectic bunch and the first day’s itinerary is strained, with undercurrents of animosity between certain tour members. The plot really begins when the company’s president falls to his death from the height of Matsuyama Castle and Josie, with her amateur nose keenly attuned to crime, doesn’t believe it’s an accident.
Fran’s literary strength is her ability to tell a story whose conclusion isn’t glaringly obvious to the reader (at least it wasn’t too me). As with her last mystery, she presents a cast of characters and imbues each with possible motives but keeps the reader guessing until the final few chapters as to who the actual perpetrator is. While the dialogue doesn’t necessarily “crackle”, with both of her novels, I’ve kept the light on at night later than I should, curious to know “whodunnit”. It’s difficult to take a character who essentially has no reason to be solving mysteries and create a continuing series of stories around that character’s crime-solving capers, but Fran has managed to make it a plausible situation and Josie is a believable protagonist.
My disappointment was with the character of Japan itself. Fran’s familiarity with Tokyo is obvious from her descriptive passages and I find myself easily placing Josie in the action in my head, conjuring up my own mental picture of a city I once resided in and still visit frequently. But with Josie’s action in Matsuyama, I felt I had no sense of the city (I’ve never been) and the text didn’t paint a clear mental image of the setting for me. Japan is a country that I feel lends itself so well to memorable imagery and I’d love to see Fran tap into that more. For those of us who reside in Japan, it’s easy to forget the wonder and awe of both the little details AND the big landscapes in Japan and I’d love to see the books do a bit more to situate the stories in a more vivid setting.
Fran is already hard at work on a third Josie in Japan novel and I’m intrigued to see where she takes us next. While the books don’t (yet) have the literary punch of a New York Times bestseller, they’re enjoyable “escapes” and would be a good read for anyone either planning a trip to Japan or with an interest in mysteries set here in the Land of the Rising Sun.
PS: Fran has the prettiest book covers I’ve seen!