Book Review: The Master Key

The master key cover


This review does not contain any spoilers outside the book's premise.

After my failed attempt at cracking The Honjin Murders, I hoped for better luck with The Master Key – another Japanese murder mystery by Masako Togawa.

The Puzzle

The story revolves around the K apartment for ladies – a housing complex inhabited by forlorn elderly women with seemingly boring lives. The "puzzle" is a blood curdling secret lying under the building's concrete, soon to be revealed by a construction project.

Right from the opening, we're handed three mysteries – a dead woman later discovered to be a male in disguise, a missing child, and the secret underneath K apartments. From here, the book completely shifts tones, now chronicling the lives of women living in the apartment. We get a glimpse into their motivations, everyday lives and youthful days. And this goes on for about ~150 pages before the solution is revealed.

My Review

The writing stands out as strikingly different from your conventional murder mystery. The bulk of the plot is about the characters involved, and the crime itself takes a back seat until much later. Once the puzzle is presented, the narrative splits like a thread of yarn into parallel storylines. Every apartment dweller's life is put under a magnifying glass, purposefully leaving out their connection to the crime. The mystery isn't the killer's identity, rather the missing links that would complete the story.

I felt that the English translation could've used simpler language, and some of the prose could've been trimmed away. The reveal struck me as odd too, undermining many chance encounters and other key events by unconvincingly presenting them as an elaborate plan by the antagonist.

Minor spoiler Towards the end, we learn that two distinct tenants were the same person. And the reader is to believe that nobody suspected this for years.

Do I recommend it?
Depends. I don't hold the puzzle in high regards, but the method of narration is unique, making it worth a read if you like seeing how different authors approach the unfolding of a mystery in words.

If you couldn't tell already, I failed to guess the solution yet again. Maybe I'll have better luck with my next read – The Inugami Curse