Putting the Pieces Together

"Because murder is more fun away from home."
Seicho Matsumoto was a Japanese crime writer from post-WWII Japan, who enjoyed a handful of translations that were well-received by Western readers, praised for possessing a social conscience, but, as Ho-Ling observed in his review of Ten to Sen (Points and Lines, 1958), they only illuminated one aspect of his work. Personally, I wouldn't place Matsumoto among my favorite mystery writers, but he has some good and fun stories to his name that can be appreciated by crime readers across the board – and Points and Lines comes especially recommended.

Unfortunately, De Amsterdamse koffermoord (The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, 1979), a collection of Dutch translations of a novella and three short stories, has only partially appeared in English. The novella, as far as I'm aware, has not been translated in English, but the short stories can be found in The Voice and Other Stories (1995). More on those stories later.

Still Waters (Run Deep)
The titular novella, The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, appeared originally as Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin-jiken (The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case, 1969) in the weekly Shukan Asahi and the plot was modeled on an actual, unsolved homicide – which captured the attention of the media in both Europe and Japan. I learned of this sensational murder case when I read my first true-crime book, A.C. Baantjer's Doden spreken niet: veertig onopgeloste moorden (The Dead Don't Speak: Forty Unsolved Murders, 1966; revised in 1981), who was a policeman in Amsterdam at the time of the murder and mentioned the case in the book. Baantjer's description of the case and comments definitely added an extra dimension to Matsumoto's artistic interpretation of the facts.

The names of the people, for one, are altered as are some of the facts (and some were left out all together) to fit the explanation for Matsumoto's fictional case. Matsumoto grounded his story in reality, but drew heavily on his artistic license. The story also notes problems in sharing information between the Dutch and Belgium police, which Baantjer confirms at the end of his piece by saying that they needed the cooperation of the Brussels police to continue the investigation, but that never happened – even though the world was watching them. Baantjer also wrote that one of the police detectives remarked, after the sudden death of a second witness, "even a detective-writer could not come up with an ending for this mystery." Someone must have felt like he was being challenged.

So on to the story, which begins, for the world, on 26th of August, 1965, when a child's attention is caught by a silver colored, metal-like suitcase floating on the Westside of the Jacob van Lennepkade between two houseboats. The macabre content of the suitcase consists of the torso of a man from which the head, hands and legs had been cut-off – alongside shredded, bloodstained pieces of clothing. Chief-Inspector Hendrik van Berkum from Bureau Leidseplein is put in charge of the investigation and immediately reaches out to Interpol and the Japanese police, while they run down the list of missing people closer at home. They eventually make an identification, but the case is shelved when one of the people, although completely cleared from any suspicion, fatally, and "suspiciously," crashes his car in Belgium.

And this is where Matsumoto introduces a narrator and a detective character in the style of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. This is even preceded with a chapter that breaks down the fourth wall and introduces them in a reference to Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which was also modeled on a real-life, unsolved murder – making it a wonderful homage to both Poe and Dupin. There are also the obligatory references to Sherlock Holmes.

The duo tramps around the Netherlands and Belgium, speaking to witnesses, analyzing facts and theorizing, while drinking in the scenery and sometimes blatantly following the tourists trail. They even visit the Anne Frank House where the detective, who the narrator calls for the purpose of this story Dr. Ukichi Kuma, muses in the hidden room how the Dutch houses are traps that can hold and make people disappear – if that's what its owner desires. I like the idea that, somehow, over the centuries, our historical buildings became sentient, but dog loyal, beings, e.g. moving churches from Jan Terlouw's Koning van Katoren (translated as: How to Become King, 1971).

So the descriptive passages do have the touch of the Dutch police procedurals/mysteries by Appie Baantjer and Simon de Waal, but the observations are clearly from the eyes of a Japanese writer and Matsumoto's explanation for the chopped-up body did not disappoint. There's always another reason in Japanese detective fiction for body mutilations/decapitations besides to make it easier to dispose of a body or make identification of the victim as difficult as possible. There have even been entire (locked room) plots build upon mutilated bodies and the few Japanese mysteries that were translated in English can vouch for their craftiness when it comes playing around with body parts.

The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder was, for me, the highlight of this volume, but there were also three other and much shorter stories. They put more emphasis on characters that drive the story rather than the plot, but two of the three were quite good for what they are.

"The Face" ("Kou") was published in August, '56 edition of Shosetsu Shincho and won a mystery prize the following year, however, this was the only story from the collection I ended up disliking. The premise was good enough to build a solid story on as an actor is slowly gaining traction as an actor and is starting to receive minor parts in movies, but the problem is that he may be recognized by the one person who could identify him as the murderer of a young woman – several years earlier. Every time you think the story is going somewhere, it peters out, before ending predictably.  

"The Cancelled Subscription" ("Chibo-shi wo kau onna") appeared on April, 1957 in the previously mentioned magazine and, basically, it’s the same story but done much better. A woman takes a subscription of a small-town newspaper filled with uninteresting local news on account of an exiting story they're running as a serial, but cancels it after a month and the small-time writers decides to find out why. The only complaint I have is that the story ended with a written confession when it, stylistically, would’ve been if the story had ended with flashback/prologue that tied up the loose ends – and an ambiguous ending would've strengthened the overall effect of the scene that came before the explanation. The plot also suggests that Matsumoto was already playing with ideas for/in the process of writing Points and Lines.

I think this story appeared in The Voice and Other Stories under the title "The Serial."

On July 1958, again in the same magazine, "The Woman Who Wrote Haiku" ("Kanto-ku no onna") was brought into circulation for the first time and has two editors of a monthly haiku publication worrying of a gifted amateur committed to a hospital. She has failed to send in a new haiku for the past three months and they decide to go investigate her faith for themselves. The reader, again, learns of highly illegal things you can do with a corpse and was surprise to read that doctors were (are?) allowed in Japan to lie to their patients, if they think it's in their best interest. 

I drew (heavily) for the publication info from the afterword of the translator, Miyako Vos-Kobayashi. 

All in all, I would say that Matsumoto's The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder was a successful cultural exchange.


  1. This was a strange, but interesting item in the history of translated Japanese mystery fiction, and indeed, the novella is pretty fun to read. Points and Lines is a must-read anyway (no. 6 in the Tozai Mystery Best 100 by the way), but this is a good spot to continue with Matsumoto if you're interested.

    And on Matsumoto's other translated stories: Inspector Imanishi Investigates (org. titel Suna no Utsuwa "Vessel of Sand") is a much-lauded novel, but I didn't enjoy it at all. I haven't read Pro Bono yet though. I did enjoy the short story The Cooperative Defendant (in: Ellery Queen's Japanese Golden Dozen though. And there are some uncollected translated short stories in backnumbers of EQMM, haven't read those either (neither translation nor original text).

    1. After reading through my review, I have to say that the strangest (and perhaps best) part of the story was the role-reversal: normally, it’s a Dutch mystery writer who adopts an Eastern detective-character and setting. This time, it was the other way around with a connection to my first mystery writer to top it all off!

      There’s a translation of "The Cooperate Defendant" in the anthology Een Oosterse huivering (An Eastern Shiver) and there's an unidentified story in Moord in Japan, however, they very well could be the same collection of stories under different titles. They were both edited by J.W. van de Wetering.

  2. A Japanese writer writing about the Dutch, with allusions to British mysteries? I'm definitely intrigued.