“Tokyo Express” by Seicho Matsumotō


The prolific career of acclaimed mystery and detective fiction author Seicho Matsumoto spanned the latter half of the 20th century. His 1958 novel, Tokyo Express, provides a glimpse into daily life during the postwar period in Japan. Previously published in English a generation ago under the title Points and Lines, the novel has been freshly translated by Jesse Kirkwood. As Kiichi Mihara of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police connects the dots of the case, he relies on the country’s reliable and punctual train system. His investigation is supported by veteran Jutaro Torigai of the Fukuoka Police.

They become involved after the bodies of Kenichi Sayama, a government employee, and Toki, a waitress at Koyuki restaurant, are found near the Genkai Sea. A man headed to work in the early morning happened upon the chilling scene.


The cold wind was laced with brine. The labourer had turned up the collar of his coat and walked briskly, his body hunched. This rugged beach was the fastest route to the factory, and he walked along it every day. But today that routine was broken. With his gaze cast downwards, he couldn’t miss them. Two bodies were lying on the dark rocks, an unwelcome blight on this familiar landscape.


Tokyo Express, Seicho Matsumoto. Jesse Kirkwood (trans) (Penguin Classics, June 2022)
Tokyo Express, Seicho Matsumoto, Jesse Kirkwood (trans) (Penguin Classics, June 2022)

After the worker reports his finding, local law enforcement is quick to rule the incident a double suicide; the man’s overcoat and woman’s kimono are unruffled, and there is no sign of struggle. But when Toki’s colleagues at the restaurant hear of her death, they are stunned. Along with regular customer Tatsuo Yasuda, they had seen the two depart for Kyushu on the Asakaze Express train just one week prior.

Torigai suspects that there might be another explanation for the couple’s death. As he considers information related to the case, he relies on his intuition and keen powers of observation. Yet he is a humble man who isn’t afraid to seek the counsel of those who may be more familiar with certain matters. His inquisitive approach and outward appearance—starting with his hat—are described as a bit unconventional.


With its crooked brim, it had clearly seen better days. Wearing it, he cut an even more unusual figure. He left the room, dragging the worn heels of his shoes across the floor.


On the other hand, his younger counterpart Mihara is described as someone who “might come across like an insurance salesman,” but who in fact works for the Second Investigative Division which deals with white collar crime. The personal interactions between the two drive the investigation forward. They exchange information while walking along the rocky beach. Away from the office and the watchful eye of the boss, Torigai shares his suspicions with Mihara.


The investigation into the couple’s death stretches from Fukuoka in the southwestern part of the country to Hokkaido at the northernmost end. Throughout these travels, regional and dialectical differences are highlighted. Mihara makes other stops along the way, and on one such trip, he reads an essay titled “Landscapes and Figures” in a literary magazine. The piece extols the pleasures of reading a train timetable and the imaginative power that it holds for the writer.


The crossing of the trains is inevitable in time, but the meeting of their passengers in space is entirely accidental. I can fantasize endlessly about the lives led by all these people who, in faraway places, are brushing past each other at this very moment. I derive far more enjoyment from these flights of fancy than from any novel produced by someone else’s imagination. Mine is the solitary, wandering pleasure of dreams.


A single sentence from the essay reignites Mihara’s suspicions and determination to solve the case. And as evidence accumulates, the text incorporates interesting bits of ephemera from his notebook: diagrams, lists, and timelines. The contents of telegrams and letters are also included, adding to the enjoyment of the mystery which hinges on the rather intricate details of the railway timetable. As mentioned in the author’s note, the train times are based on actual schedules from 1957. Readers may also be interested in the English translation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates which begins with the discovery of a murder victim at a train station.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.