Typically, when I think of a spinster detective, it’s Miss Marple who comes to mind. I’m quite enamored of that fluffy little old lady, the tidy-yet-murderous village of St. Mary Mead, and her ever-present knitting needles. But sometimes I yearn for something a little darker. Not gory, but ominous and unexpected and unputdownable. If you, too, want to try something decidedly different than your typical mystery read, look no further than Masako Togawa’s The Master Key. Coming in at 200 pages, it’s a fast read that never feels rushed, featuring a variety of well-drawn and highly original characters, exquisite tension, and a complex but elegant plot — the perfect summer mystery.
The Master Key starts with a melancholy puzzle: a man dressed in women’s clothing is killed crossing the street in 1950’s Tokyo, but police are unable to identify him. Nearby, a woman waits for the man’s return, unaware of his fate. The puzzle quickly deepens into something more sinister: a couple buries a child in the basement of the K Apartments, a residence for young single women. Elsewhere, five-year-old George Kratt is kidnapped and held for ransom. A decade later, the K Apartments are scheduled to be moved due to road construction. Its residents, still unmarried, have aged — and so have their secrets. The project threatens to reveal a multitude of past sins, and the various denizens of the building resort to increasingly desperate measures to hide the truth…or reveal it. The building’s master key is stolen, replaced, and stolen again. A cult, replete with prophecies and miracles, takes root. And gradually, the mysteries of the K Apartments are revealed as intricate parts of a surprising whole.
Originally published in Japan in 1962, the new translation feels timeless — it’s definitely set in Japan, but the world is so immersive and engaging that you don’t miss any of our modern technology. Instead, you’re drawn into the insular, idiosyncratic lives of the K Apartments residents, each with a distinctive and compelling backstory, each investigating her neighbors. Imagine a claustrophobic building full of Miss Marples, each unraveling a different mystery. As the mysteries deepen and twine together, so does the sense of dread, until all is revealed — and revealed again in a brief epilogue that will have you diving back in to look at the clues and red herrings anew.
Even though The Master Key uses familiar tropes — the spinster detective, the suspects in close quarters, the long-ago crime about to be revealed — the clever plotting and fraught atmosphere make it a unique, compulsively readable alternative to traditional mysteries. It’s the book I’ll be recommending to everyone this summer.