Sunday, May 26, 2024


MAMI SUZUKI: PRIVATE EYE by Simon Rowe (Penguin, 2023)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Beneath the sheen of its orderly streets and obedient populace, all is not well in the port city of Kobe. Business is as brisk as the Haru-ichiban spring breeze for Mami Suzuki, hotel clerk by day, private investigator by night.

Who’s stealing from Japan’s biggest pearl trader? Where’s the master sushi chef and why are his knives missing? How did the tea ceremony teacher’s brother really die? And what does an island of cats have to do with a pregnant Shinto shrine maiden?

From the Kobe wharfs to the rugged Japan Sea coast, the subtropics of Okinawa, and a remote island community in the Seto Inland Sea, each new adventure ends with a universal truth – that there are two sides to every story of misfortune.

Mami Suzuki is moonlighting as a private eye in Kobe, Japan. She is doing so unbeknownst to the management of the Orient Hotel where she works – she needs the money to support herself, her mother, and her daughter. Four stories, each linked by the word of mouth of a client, present Mami Suzuki as shrewd, empathetic, and sensible – although possibly with a bit of a drinking problem.

Suzuki’s four cases take us to wonderfully described destinations; you can smell hear and taste the locations. One story is set in Kobe, with the president of a major pearl business concerned about theft in the organisation. The second takes us to the small port town of Mihonoseki near Matsue, with Suzuki trying to locate a sushi master who has left his family. Suzuki then takes her mum and daughter to Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture, to determine the truth behind the death of a retired executive. Finally, we start a mystery at the Ikuta Shrine in Kobe and end up on the island of Manabeshima, populated by 83 people and 166 cats.

A common thread in each story is the charming and handsome fisherman, Teizo, whose backstory equips him with knowledge of the sea, and connections in various places, which help Suzuki with her cases. The stories are in a minor key – Suzuki gently piecing together the stories of desperation, heartbreak, superstition, longing, and human frailty. They are compelling stories, and Suzuki is quite funny, gets angry, has a strong sense of justice that doesn’t always agree with the law, and finds the “greatest unsolved mystery” to be how she is managing to hold down a day job while working as a private investigator.

Mami Suzuki: Private Eye, written by an outsider who has spent a lot of time in Japan, gives a tantalising look at another way of thinking about things, while always keeping the distance of an onlooker; the result is atmospheric and beguiling. I really look forward to reading more of Mami Suzuki’s adventures..

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving former librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

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