Friday, August 23, 2019

The Master Key

The Master Key / Masako Togawa;
trans. from the Japanese by Simon Grove
NY: Pushkin Vertigo, 2017, c1962.
192 p.
This slim little mystery from 1962 still holds its claustrophobic, creepy factor 50 years later. It's set in a Tokyo rooming house for single ladies; it's a hold-out from the days in which young women couldn't live alone and keep a good reputation. Most of the residents have been there for a long, long time -- the apartment block is full of older ladies, including the two concierges. 

In the preface we see a crime being committed, and there's evidence of a witness. And then the book gives us hints and clues until we think we've figured it all out. But we haven't. It's a cleverly constructed mystery that makes sense once all is revealed but before that there are multiple scenarios that also make sense. It's all very startling. 

This isn't the kind of book I expect to read when I pick up a Japanese title. It feels Hitchcockian in some ways, and it's more about the individuals and their foibles than about the place or setting. Each of the women in this block of rooms has a secret of one kind or another, and they all come together in the perfect storm this summer as they wait for their building to be raised from its foundation and moved, with all of them still inside, to make room for a new roadway. 

All this unsettles the occupants both physically and psychologically. We hear bits of the story from different viewpoints of various characters, including the concierges who of course see everything and know all. It's similar to French novels in that way. From long-ago affairs, jiltings, or family issues, to questions of money or status or reputation, so many secrets reveal their outcomes in this story. 

I can't really explain the plot -- it's all so complicated and intertwined. Nearly every woman in this apartment is involved in some way, not to mention the strange new spiritual leader who starts holding meetings in their building. People are misled, confused, fed false information, manipulated, and most of the time also proven wrong. 

I found it a very fast read; I couldn't put it down. What exactly was going on here? I had to know. For an unexpected visit to an enclosed community, so to speak, and a mystery that will surprise you in the end, try this classic written by a multitalented woman who was a singer/songwriter, actress, feminist, novelist, LGBTQQIAP community icon, former night club owner, metropolitan city planning panelist, and music educator.


  1. I've read some Japanese books, but I hadn't heard of this mystery before. It sounds intriguing to me.

    1. It's interesting to read books newly republished after so many years -- the assumptions in it are quite different from contemporary reads. Really interesting!


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