Book review: Japanese thriller Lady Joker low on action, heavy on detail

Kaoru Takamura is an award-winning veteran author with 13 novels to her name and made her debut in 1990.
Kaoru Takamura is an award-winning veteran author with 13 novels to her name and made her debut in 1990.PHOTOS: SOHO CRIME, SHINCHOSHA PUBLISHING

Lady Joker, Volume One

By Kaoru Takamura, translated by Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell
Crime/Soho Crime/Hardcover/576 pages/$46.95/Available here
3 out of 5

Lady Joker is an epic tome at 576 pages - and the story is not even complete. The first of a two-part series, with the second due for release next year, it is a detailed fictional account of a true unsolved crime from the 1980s.

Kaoru Takamura is an award-winning veteran author with 13 novels to her name and made her debut in 1990, but Lady Joker, first published in 1997, is her first title to be translated into English.

It has also been adapted into film and television in her native Japan, where it is used as material for literature classes.

Takamura is known as a maestro of crime and psychological fiction, often peeling away prim and proper facades to shine a harsh spotlight on the invisible underbelly of Japanese society.

Five men, acquainted through betting on horse-racing, decide to kidnap Kyosuke Shiroyama, billionaire president of fictional company Hinode Beer. The motley crew give themselves the name "Lady Joker".

The fates of these men become intertwined after the grandson of pharmacy owner Seizo Monoi - a key figure in the quintet - dies in a mysterious high-speed car crash after he was forced to break up with Shiroyama's niece, Yoshiko Sugihara.

And in a nugget true to real life, where senior executives of major Japanese companies are usually related, Yoshiko's father Takeo is a director at Hinode Beer.

If this web of relationships already sounds puzzling, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many characters that the book begins with a glossary of 27 names who form the dramatis personae.

Lady Joker is loosely based on a series of real-life kidnapping, extortion and harassment cases from 1984 to 1985. The mastermind, dubbed The Monster With 21 Faces, was never caught. Confectioners like Glico and Morinaga were targeted, their products laced with poison and the firms extorted for money.

Readers who expect a fast-paced thriller akin to works by the likes of Keigo Higashino will be disappointed. Takamura's writing is like reportage, her words matter of fact, not colourful.

This will also not be the easiest novel to breeze through, as Takamura dives into minutiae on banking and company balance sheets, with scene-setting done to a fault.

Yet, the magnum opus is outstanding for its immaculate, visceral social commentary. Takamura transports the reader to 1990s Japan, which is languishing in the economic doldrums after the burst of the asset bubble.

She shines a light on society's underprivileged and minorities, who remain ostracised even to this day, despite having no visible sign that they are different from ordinary Japanese.

Monoi was born into a family of burakumin, or hamlet people, the shunned underclass of a feudal social hierarchy system that was dismantled in 1871. One of his friends is a zainichi, an ethnic Korean whose ancestors were forced to move to Japan during the war.

Even if the material is more than two decades old, Lady Joker's themes of corporate governance and societal disaffection remain highly relevant today.

Given its scant action, it is not for everyone. But it will hook readers who appreciate intelligent mysteries and those who want a deeper glimpse into the hidden shadows of Japanese society.

If you like this, read: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong (Pushkin Press, 2020, $19.94, available here). The clever locked-room mystery, first published in 1987 and inspired by Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939), was credited with launching the shinhonkaku (new orthodox) mystery sub-fiction genre in Japan.

This article contains affiliate links. If you buy through these links, we may earn a small commission.