Masako Togawa’s The Master Key opens like some sort of blood red giallo or Hollywood noir – something Dario Argento, Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma would luridly tease our senses with. There’s crossdressing, kidnapping, death and mystery all within the first pages, hooking the reader with a promise of sin and sensation.
As the mystery unravels, that promise subsides into something deeper and perhaps more intellectually satisfying. Set almost entirely within the confines an all-ladies apartment block in Tokyo, we meet a diverse set of female characters – all of whom are tinged with vice in one way or another, haunted by what was or what is overwhelmingly in front of them.
Unlocking the fates of each of these characters is a key – a physical master key to the entire apartment complex that could unravel their secrets into the cold light of day. It’s such a riveting read when each of the characters not only has something to lose but also something to hide.
Togawa does a great job of infusing these characters with vivid differentiation and providing them with a glossy surface that makes them malleable to a storytelling vortex. In this respect, there are parallels to the likes of Agatha Christie or Margaret Millar. Indeed, The Master Key feels like Beast in View mixed with And Then There Were None – high praise indeed.
As you roam from door to door, it’s clear that this is a riveting story with a fantastic sense of place that commands the reader’s attention right up to a somewhat far-fetched but genuinely sinister conclusion. It makes you wonder about the people you live with, work alongside and the ones you think you know well. Perhaps their shattering secrets are just a lock away. Themes of security, honour, obligation and voyeurism converge into something enticing and engaging under Togawa’s pen.
The Master Key is available now via one of my favourite publishers: Pushkin Press. Their Pushkin Vertigo series of crime novellas is jewelled with masterworks, curiosities and guilty page-turning pleasures with this one falling solidly in the latter category.