In modern-day Tokyo, an American businessman meets a grisly end underneath an oncoming subway train. But it was no accident. He was pushed, and furthermore, we know who did it. Michiko Suzuki, a seriously damaged young woman, is the murderer, but why did she do it? So begins The Last Train by Michael Pronko.
The book is a murder mystery but not so much a whodunnit but rather a whydunnit and a howcatchem. Detective Hiroshi Shimizu is called by his former mentor Takamatsu to help with the investigation. Shimizu is attached to white collar crime, but his expertise is put to good use here. After identifying the murder victim as a foreigner because of his blonde hair, Hiroshi eventually discovers his real name – Steve Deveaux. Turns out Steve was a member of Bentley Associates, an international consulting and investing company.
What seems like a straight forward murder leads Shimizu down a rabbit hole of shady land deals, organized crime, and the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. The Last Train depicts Tokyo as a city of bright neon lights that hide the dark shadows lurking beneath the surface. And no one is filled with darker shadows than Michiko Suzuki.
Through flashbacks, we gain insight into her past – strange and terrible. Turns out, Steve Deveaux wasn’t the only one at Bentley Associates she was involved with. One of Steve’s coworkers is being set up for another gruesome murder, unless Hiroshi can save him in time.
Hiroshi Shimizu is an interesting protagonist, sad, lonely, and married to his work. Sort of like a salaryman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. He had an American girlfriend, but by the time we meet up with him, they’ve since split up. Instead, we get to know her through his internal monologues and wallow in sadness with him.
However, this is Japan, and duty should always trump emotion, especially with police officers. Hiroshi soldiers on, investigating leads through seedy hostess nightclubs, which a notch above brothels. But when Takamatsu mysteriously disappears, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi to find his mentor and why exactly Steve Deveaux was murdered.
The novel is divided between Michiko and Hiroshi. Little by little, we learn more about Michiko’s motives, and Hiroshi uncovers more about the shady dealings surrounding Bentley Associates. The plot is quite dense and the corrupt real estate at the center somewhat reminded me of Chinatown. This isn’t an airport novel, but rather a fairly complex mystery-thriller that kicks over the rock that is modern-day Tokyo and shows you all the nasty creatures crawling beneath it.
Michael Pronko Interview
1) What inspired you to write the book?
Well, I was reporting on Japanese jazz for many years, so I went out often to various nightlife areas of Tokyo, and I’d always see these stunning women. I could tell their work was as hostesses. They seemed so strong, capable and clever. Seeing them inspired me to write about them. I wondered where they came from and how they survived.
2) What research into the Japanese Police did you do?
Writing for the editorial section of Japan Times for many years, a lot of what I had to do was dig into police records, statistics and reports. None of that connects to what detectives do exactly, but it was an education about crime in Japan. In the novel, basically I’ve stayed away from doing a strict police procedural, which would demand a lot more inside info, which is not always so easy to find. Japan is not very transparent. I wanted believable characters, not precise procedures.
3) Japan is often considered one of the safest countries in the world. However, you depict a Japan where shady land deals and corruption lurk just under the surface. Are crimes and corruption in Japan more common than we think?
Crime is not a huge daily consideration here for most people. But I think crimes are more common than is reported. Crime rates have risen at times, but that’s maybe a function of more crimes being reported. Even though Japan is a relatively safe place, that doesn’t mean there’s zero crime. Perhaps because it’s generally safe, the crimes that do take place are more shocking. Crime in general tends to be hidden away, like so many other aspects of the culture.
4) Michiko’s past was quite disturbing. Was there any real-life inspiration for this?
I have talked to Japanese women over the years who have told me stories about what happened to them and what happened to other women they know. The world of loans, which puts a lot of people in permanent debt, is something that needs to be changed. The small factories that were the backbone of the country, producing small parts for large corporations, got screwed when the bubble economy collapsed. Small factories like Michiko’s father’s one took the hardest hit. So, that is all too real. As for her teenage years, that’s nothing unusual, but still a bit surprising.
5) The hostess nightclubs depicted in the novel seem to be back doors to a seedy underworld. Is this true in real life?
There is a seedy underworld, a huge world in and of itself, but it doesn’t always connect to the hostess nightclubs. There are nightclubs where companionship, in the form of drinks and conversation, is purchased, and everyone goes home alone at the end of the night. From that world, there are back doors to other worlds, of course. Japan’s a multi-layered society, and interconnected in complex ways, but it’s easy to exoticize it instead of seeing it as an intricately layered economic system. I don’t mean to normalize that, as it is not a good system, but it is how a lot of people get by.
6) Who is your favorite character and why?
Michiko, of course. I really was in love with her. She’s a mixed set of values—some traditional, some contemporary, some universal, some Japanese. She is a woman who can do things and has her own sense of being a woman. She refuses to succumb to the limitations of traditional ideas of womanhood, and works hard to be independent and free. I would not want to have to make the choices she had to make, so I respect what she did.
7) Was there any specific reason you went the indie route?
I was talking with some friends who are musicians and promoters and managers, and they kept reminding me that a lot of the music I listen to and love is indie music. But it was more of a desire to experiment rather than any rejection of the establishment. As it turned out, I liked being deeply involved with all aspects of the book, design, promotion, marketing, formatting, on top of writing and rewriting. I published several books with Japanese publishers before, and had a great experience with them. But, overall, I still want to do things how I see it best to do.
8) What are you working on currently?
After publishing the second novel, The Moving Blade, I’m now working on my third, Tokyo Traffic. It’s also set in Tokyo with the same detectives and is based on the nexus of Asian sex trafficking and Tokyo youth culture. The main characters are women, again, and they are very strong for their age. It is set deeply in Tokyo’s nightlife, but another side of the nightlife from The Last Train.
The Last Train can be purchased on following sites:
Also check out Michael Pronko’s website.