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Thursday 25 January 2018

‘The Master Key’ by Masako Togawa

Translated by Simon Grove
Published by Pushkin Vertigo,
23 November 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-78227-363-9

The block of flats was built as a symbol of the way Japan was changing, with apartments for single working women, but over the years  those women have aquired secrets ...

This beautifully-written novel opens seven years before the main action, with the road-accident death of a woman who’s discovered to be a man. We then go back to three days before, when he arrives at the flat of  one of the women, carrying a suitcase containing the body of a young child, which they bury together in the basement.  From there, an intricate web is woven around the women in the flat as they wait for a marvel of technology: their entire building is going to be jacked up and moved out of the way of a new road – a move which will expose the former basement. There are the receptionists, Miss Tamura and Miss Katsuko, guardians of the master key to all the flats,  which goes missing during the story, and is used by several characters to spy on each other. There’s Professor Munekata, who’s working on her late husband’s manuscript, and Miss Suwa, a former violinist, whose world is turned upside down when a mysterious foreigner offers a large sum of money for a newspaper of the date of her beloved teacher’s last concert – the day his valuable violin was stolen.  The strange Miss Noriko, who lives nocturnally, scavenging fish bones, is determined to investigate Miss Suwa. Running over these threads is the story of the half-American child who was kidnapped seven years earlier. His mother suspects someone in the block of flats, and asks another resident, her former teacher, Miss Yunono, to investigate – an investigation which draws her into the seances held by the Three Spirit Faith. The intricate story moves from character to character, the plot keeps you guessing, and all the threads are drawn together in a triumphant ending.

An intricate novel with beautifully-drawn characters and a clever ending.  Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Matsali Taylor

Masako Togawa  was born in Tokyo on 23 March 1933. Her father died when she was young, and she spent the rest of her childhood living with her mother, in an apartment building for single women, which provided the inspiration for the setting of The Master Key. After leaving school she worked as a typist for some years, before stepping onto the stage as a cabaret performer in 1954. She soon began to write backstage during the breaks between her performances, and in 1962, her debut novel The Master Key was published, and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. She went on to become a hugely successful crime writer, but continued to lead a colourful parallel life as a singer, actress, feminist, nightclub owner and gay icon. She died 26 April 2016 at the age of 83.
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

A review of her recent book Ghosts of the Vikings can be read here.

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