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Mystery writer Nishimura continues on winning run of great train stories

by Janet Ashby

The recently released list of top taxpayers for fiscal 2003 has shown that, despite the overall slump in the book trade, the payoff can still be great for authors who strike a chord with the public.

According to the breakdown, third on the list of top authors was Takeshi Yoro, whose “Baka no Kabe” (The Wall of a Fool)” became the No. 1 best seller. Sixth was Kyoichi Katayama, author of “Sekai no Chushin de, Ai o Sakebu (Crying for Love in the Center of the World),” holder of the new sales record for Japanese novels.

According to an estimate by Nikkei Entertainment (July 2004), “Baka-no Kabe” sold over 3.5 million copies for Yoro, generating 240 million yen in royalties (charged at 10 percent of the 680 yen cover price).

At a higher cover price of 1,400 yen, however, the estimated 3 million copies of “Sekai” sold since 2001 have brought Katayama an estimated 420 million yen. But if we add the movie of the same name released in May, the TV series starting this month and future video and DVD sales, his total earnings from “Sekai” could approach 500 million yen.

However, even this pales in the face of the earning power of a popular manga like “Meitantei Conan (Detective Conan)” by Gosho Aoyama. Nikkei Entertainment estimates that, with accumulated royalties from 45 volumes (starting in 1994) of 3.9 billion yen, and a possible 300,000 yen earned per episode for the TV anime, “Meitantei Conan” may have earned more than 5 billion yen since it began.

Meanwhile, the author topping the top taxpayer list for the sixth year in a row was mystery writer Kyotaro Nishimura, who had an estimated taxable income for 2003 of 393.5 million yen. The super-prolific Nishimura, father of the Japanese travel mystery, is still — at the age of 74 — churning out a dozen or so books per year. His popular serialized novels appear in such monthly fiction magazines as All Yomimono, Mondai Shosetsu, Shosetsu Hoseki, Shosetsu Shincho, Shosetsu Gendai and J-Novel.

Born in Tokyo in 1930, Nishimura’s education was disrupted by the war. He graduated from a technical high school and worked for 12 years in a government office but, realizing he was disadvantaged without a college degree, quit and aimed at making it as an author. After struggling for many years, he published his first book in 1964 at the age of 34 and won the Edogawa Rampo mystery prize the next year.

Nishimura has written in a number of styles, but since the success of his third travel mystery in 1980 has been focusing on train-related mysteries featuring a detective named Totsukawa and his sidekick Kamei. These two also appear in TV mystery dramas.

Why have train-based travel mysteries gained such a wide readership in Japan? The combination of stock characters and a familiar plot has certainly been an effective entertainment formula the world over, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Robert Parker’s Spenser. And a neatly solved puzzle is ever satisfying, from Agatha Christie to the recent TV hit “CSI.”

Since Nishimura has published over 350 books, there was no shortage of them to read, so I chose two short works from anthologies compiled by Nishimura himself.

The novella “Honeymoon Murder” in “Uruwashiki Giwaku (Elegant Suspicion)” was curiously flat and one-dimensional for a story about the death of the bride of one of Totsukawa’s team. Ogawa and his bride, Sachiko, leave Ueno on a train for Morioka. While he is away from his seat, an explosion occurs in the Green Car, resulting in her death. After determining the explosion was caused by a bomb, Totsukawa’s team investigates some of the people Ogawa had sent to prison and finds one of them, Tsuji, murdered. On his calendar, however, they find a memo about the very same train.

They discover Tsuji had become friends in prison with Aono, a distant relative of Sachiko who also wanted to marry her. He becomes their main suspect, but has an unshakable alibi for that day, placing him in Aomori. So what was Tsuji’s role? After carefully examining the train schedule, Totsukawa finally breaks Aono’s alibi. It turns out that the train, Yamabiko No. 5, had come from Aomori that morning as Hatsukari No. 2, meaning that Aono could have planted the bomb without leaving Aomori; Tsuji’s role was to delay its arrival in Ueno by placing copper wire on the track so there would be less time for a thorough cleaning in Ueno that could have uncovered the bomb.

The short story “Totsukawa’s Vacation” in “Nihon Retto Satsui no Tabi (Japanese Islands Murder Journey)” was more enjoyable.

Totsukawa takes a rare vacation, staying at a ryokan with his wife. At dinner they feed a white cat but the next day find it dead in the garden, poisoned with cyanide that has traces of antibiotic. Totsukawa suspects a man in his 50s who is at the ryokan with a younger woman; maybe he is poisoning his lover in her cold capsules. They track him down and ask for his help in finding her before she takes the poison. After he breaks down and confesses, Totsukawa and Kamei rush off to Izu only to find her dead. But she did not die of the poison. After noticing his changed feelings for her, she cast herself into the sea instead, leaving him a cryptic note saying she had disposed of the evidence that he was poisoning her.