Two years after the publication of The Tattoo Murder in the UK, English publisher Pushkin Press is back with another Akimitsu Takagi book: The Noh Mask Murder. This is a major event for non-Japanese fans of the writer, as it is a previously unpublished work. This detective novel, the author’s second and the one that won him the Mystery Writer’s Club prize in Japan in 1950, had never before been translated into English. This error has now been rectified by the independent publisher, who, with its Pushkin Vertigo series, is bringing together classics of Japanese crime literature and, alongside Takagi, the great authors Seishi Yokomizo, Yamada Futaro and Yukito Ayatsuji.

Daniel Seton, publisher at Pushkin Press, kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A to tell us more about the rediscovery of Takagi’s work.

Pushkin Press' editor Daniel Seton talks about the new crime novel published in the UK.

Pushkin Vertigo is a division of Pushkin Press which translated Akimitsu Takagi’s novel The Tattoo Murder. Could you tell us more about its activities and your role as a senior commissioning editor?

Pushkin Vertigo is the crime imprint of Pushkin Press. We founded the imprint in 2015, with the idea of bringing the best classic and contemporary crime and thriller novels from across the world to readers in English. As a commissioning editor, my (very enjoyable) job is to find books for the list that I think our readers will enjoy, then to work with the rest of the team on publishing them.

Can you tell us a little about the process that leads a publisher to decide to translate an old novel and publish it? 

Of course, ideally, I would like to read a novel in full before deciding to acquire it. However, because of the international focus of our list, that is often not possible, as the majority of titles I consider do not exist in English or French translation (the two languages I can read in). In that case, I have to base my decision on the reputation of the book, reviews, awards, sales. I will usually also commission a translator to read the book for me and write a report, and I might also ask the translator to produce a sample translation.

After The Tattoo Murder in 2022, you published a new novel by Akimitsu Takagi, previously unpublished in English, entitled The Noh Mask Murder. What qualities of the book convinced you to do it? Because the book won the Mystery Writer’s club prize in 1950?

Well, yes – the prize win was certainly a factor. Also, since I had already read The Tattoo Murder, I knew what a wonderful writer Takagi was, so it didn’t seem like too much of a risk to acquire another book of his, especially one that was so highly regarded. Finally, the translator Jesse Kirkwood wrote me a very positive reader report, which sealed the deal!

Could you briefly describe the plot?

The story centres around the wealthy Chizui family – a sinister figure in a Noh mask has been seen stalking their mansion at night. The head of the family, fearing the worst, sends for help, from amateur detective and budding crime writer Akimitsu Takagi, but Takagi arrives at the Chizui mansion too late. The man who summoned him has just been found dead, in a room locked from the inside, with the Noh mask at his feet and a strange scent of jasmine lingering in the air…

As you’ve just said, Takagi appears in the book in his own role as writer, embroiled in an investigation. Is it common for an author to insert himself into one of his stories?

Yes, he does. This is really quite an unusual and enjoyable aspect of The Noh Mask Murder, especially as Takagi has great fun with the idea and doesn’t portray his fictional self in an entirely positive light! It’s a great concept and Takagi exploits it to the full.

The cover of the book depicts a hannya demon mask from Japanese folklore and Noh theatre. It’s also a very popular motif in Japanese tattoo iconography. Can we expect any new references to this milieu?

I’m afraid there are no tattoos in this book, but I’m pleased to say there are plenty of frightening moments and tantalising hints of the fantastic woven through the mystery plot!

How was The Tattoo Murder received by the public?

It had a great reception! It has sold very well, and Goodreads reviews call it ‘a twisty whodunnit narrative’ and say ‘there are lots of red herrings designed to throw the readers off the track only to marvel at the genius of the plot at the end.’ It also received great reviews in the mainstream press, where it was a Times Crime Club Pick of the Week

Has the theme of tattoos played a role in its appreciation, given their popularity today, particularly Japanese-style tattoos?

Yes, I certainly think the exploration of Japan’s tattoo subculture what lends the book such a fantastic, rich atmosphere, and that is something readers really responded to. It also allowed our designer to come up with a beautiful cover design!

What did you think of the treatment of the theme?

I knew practically nothing about Japanese tattoos before reading The Tattoo Murder, so I found all the details fascinating. I especially loved the way that the tattoos in the book were interwoven with Japanese occult tradition as part of the central mystery…

Did you know Takagi at the time?

I hadn’t heard of Akimitsu Takagi before we founded the Pushkin Vertigo imprint, but afterwards, when I was exploring Japan’s crime-writing culture and history, I learnt that Takagi is one of the most famous writers of honkaku (or ‘orthodox’) mysteries from the genre’s post-war heyday.

What comparisons could you make between Takagi and other crime writers who were his contemporaries, such as Seishi Yokomizo?

It’s hard to compare these two truly great crime writers… I would say that Takagi’s interest in esoteric subjects lends his books a very enjoyable ‘weirdness’ that is distinctively his own.

Takagi in Tokyo, c.1955.

Although his work is prolific, very few of his books have been translated. How do you explain this?

It’s not at all unusual, I’m afraid, for a great author to be overlooked for translation, especially into English. The good news is that we would love to translate many more of Takagi’s mysteries!

Takagi was an original character: fascinated by tattoos, passionate about divination and chess. Do all writers of crime novels share whimsical or singular personalities?

He certainly was. Many of our authors have had interesting lives, but Akimitsu Takagi really stands out for his colourful interests – I particularly like the story of how he was inspired to go into crime writing on the advice of a fortune teller!

Does Japan have a significant crime fiction culture?

Yes, indeed. It’s been really exciting for me to discover this through my work on the Pushkin Vertigo list. There is a long history of crime writing in Japan – Japanese authors originally drew a lot of inspiration from British and American greats: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr… but what is so interesting about Japanese crime writing for Western mystery fans is that it has moved on from those influences to go in a really distinctive and highly enjoyable direction.  

Can we expect further translations of Takagi’s works from Pushkin Press?

I certainly hope so… Watch this space!