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Murder memoir and music in Tokyo with Michael Pronko

Author Michael Pronko wears many hats. He’s a professor. He’s a music fan who writes about jazz in Japan. He’s written essays and memoir about living in Tokyo. And in this episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast we’ll talk about his Detective Hiroshi mysteries.

As you’ll hear Michael and I discuss, Detective Hiroshi could be thought of as someone who represents the flip-side of Michael’s experience. Hiroshi is Japanese, but was raised in the US, and is now back in Tokyo working for the local police force. (Where Michael is an American who has long lived and worked in Tokyo.)

After Michael reads to us from The Moving Blade, the first in the Detective Hiroshi mysteries, our conversation ranges from talking about sumo wrestlers as detectives, the secretive American military presence in Japan, and why April is the start of the year in Japan.

This week’s mystery author

Michael Pronko is an award-winning, Tokyo-based author of the Detective Hiroshi mystery series. His first mystery, The Last Train, was selected as the winner of the Shelf Unbound Contest for best independently published book of 2018, and his second novel, The Moving Blade, won the Independent Press Award for Crime Fiction and was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best Indie Mysteries and Thrillers of 2018. He also writes about jazz for his own website, Jazz in Japan, and teaches American literature and culture at Meiji Gakuin University.

To learn more about Michael and his books visit MichaelPronko.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.

Excerpt from The Moving Blade

Chapter One

Hideyasu Sato rarely took jobs involving foreigners. They usually lived in tall apartment buildings, kept little cash and had bad taste in valuables. But this job was pitched as an easy in-and-out with good pay and a light load. 

The Moving Blade Michael Pronko

Getting into the house was, as always in Tokyo, a cinch. He slid a small tension wrench into the keyhole of the kitchen delivery door, levered it up, poked in a rake pick, and after a few tickles, the lock plug spun loose and he was in. 

The homeowner had just died, so Sato timed the break-in during the funeral—the best time to rob anyone in Tokyo. After the long ceremony, cremation took an hour or so, depending. Since the owner was famous—Bernard Mattson was a name even Sato knew—the post-funeral chitchat by bigwigs would give him a further cushion. 

Sato left his shoes by the door and stepped into the stately, old house in the Asakusa shitamachi “lower town” district of eastern Tokyo. The kitchen had surprisingly few modern appliances and looked a little like he remembered his grandmother’s in the countryside—spacious, simple, functional. 

Walking into the living area, Sato admired the exquisite wood beams and intricate wood paneling. A tatami-floored room in Japanese style, empty save for a scroll, statue and vase, opened to the right. The main living room was Western style, with parquet floors that were wide and open, with a sofa, chairs, tree-trunk table and Japanese antiques. 

Sato found the bookcase-lined study, and sat down at the computer to copy the two files he’d been hired to retrieve: “SOFA” and “Shunga.” It would be easy to download the files to two USB drives and erase the computer before carrying the drives across town, but the computer was old and slow, the fan whirling loudly as he downloaded the files. All around him, the wood frame house creaked like an old man’s bones. 

When he’d downloaded one file on each of two separate USB drives, he pulled out a DVD to wipe the computer clean. He rebooted and waited while it worked its magic. He turned off the computer. Waited. Turned it back on. A small arrow pulsed at the bottom of the empty, grey screen. Pressing the keys and clicking the mouse had no effect. It was wiped clean. 

As he rose, Sato could not help but look around, impressed at the offset shelves, paulownia tansu chests, and bamboo-sleeved pot hook dangling from the ceiling. His grandmother had cooked with one of those. Many things in the room could be resold, but from the long shelves along the wall, he pocketed four easy-to-carry netsuke carvings: a smiling frog, a tanuki raccoon-dog, and two of couples locked in sexual embrace. The netsuke were like ivory diamonds—compact and easy to sell. 

On the way out, Sato surveyed the kitchen. It was hard to guess where a foreigner would tuck away cash, if at all, but he went with instincts honed by years of breaking in Japanese homes. Inside an old tea cabinet, he found a cherry-bark box with a false bottom concealing a thick wad of ten thousand yen notes. 

Not so different, Sato chuckled to himself as he stuffed the money in his pocket next to the netsuke and USB drives. He slipped on his shoes, closed the door, exited through the garden and walked away as if he had lived in the neighborhood all his life. 

It wasn’t until he was changing trains in Ueno that he noticed the foreigner. Over the years, Sato had been tackled, punched, stabbed and slapped so his ear drum burst, but by following his most basic rule of never stopping, he always got away. He couldn’t run like a young man anymore, so he’d doubled up on caution. Now, he had something new—a gaijin trailing him through Tokyo. 

He’d noticed him on the train, but many foreigners returned from Asakusa on the same route. This foreigner, though, wasn’t checking his cellphone for directions or looking at his camera photos. He was staring out the window at the subway walls, too patiently, too attentive to nothing. 

Sato got off in Ueno and glanced back to see the foreigner riding the escalator a dozen steps behind. He was so tall he had to duck under the metal ceiling panels. His hat hid his face and a black leather coat stretched to his calves. Sato hurried to the Yamanote Line platform without looking back.

When the train got to Tokyo station, Sato could see his head jutting over the crowd like a giraffe. All that milk and beef, Sato thought. It was trying to get milk and beef that pushed him into housebreaking fifty years ago. So, Sato decided to follow another of his rules—stay on the train. The rush hour crowds in the stations made it easy to lose anyone. 

The best plan was to ride all the way to Shinbashi, hurry up and over and down to the next platform for a train back towards Tokyo Station, and push into the middle of the jam-packed car just before the doors close. 

At Tokyo Station, he glanced back down the long, steep escalator of the Chuo Line. 

The foreigner was gone. 

As he rode up, Sato texted the address of the house in Asakusa to the crew waiting to get in, describing what was there and estimating how long they had to get in and out. He was glad to leave the heavy stuff to the Koreans and Chinese. They were younger, quicker and stronger. Braver, too, he had to admit. He was never sure where they hocked what they carted off, but that wasn’t any of his concern. He trusted them for his cut, which was always sent promptly through automatic bank transfer.

At Shinjuku Station, Sato followed another of his rules and steered himself to the densest middle of the crowd. Outside the station, he blended in with the pedestrians hunkered deep into their coats against the winter wind, moving at their pace. 

A bit more caution couldn’t hurt, he decided, so he turned into the Isetan department store. The first floor was crowded for a perfume sale with neatly dressed Japanese women sampling scents. Sato slipped through the medley of aromas and down a stairway to the tight-set basement counters selling tea, jam, cheese, pickles, miso and dried fish—a maze no foreigner could manage. Sato zigzagged past middle-aged women sniffing out daily bargains as salespeople called out their wares in booming, froggy voices. At the back of the basement floor, the underground market ended at a door into a bland corridor with stairs up to Yasukuni Dori Street. 

He finally stopped in the fresh air outside and lit a cigarette by a display window of fall fashions. He looked back and forth from the mannequins in their put-on poses to the glass doors he’d just exited. 

He smoked all the way down to the filter. Maybe he was being too cautious but that was better.

People flowed around him on the sidewalk, so he huddled close to the big window to wiggle one of the USB drives into the cigarette pack for safekeeping.

He decided to smoke one more. When he finished, no one had emerged. Lost him, his instincts told him as he ground out the butt, smug he still had the knack. 

Halfway downhill towards Golden Gai, he stopped to buy cigarettes at a small tobacco stand wedged into a four-floor building. He slid a thousand-yen bill under the glass counter and looked back the way he came. As the old woman gave him change, he caught her rheumy eyes set deep in her furrowed smoker’s face—and quickly looked away. She was old and her cheeks hung from her head like worn saddlebags.

Sato stood there and tamped the fresh pack, then pulled out a few of the cigarettes, slipped the other USB drive in and tossed out the couple cigarettes that wouldn’t fit into the gutter. 

He walked on to a narrow intersection a few blocks down, and turned onto a small street cramped with beer crates, Styrofoam fish boxes, and plastic trashcans. Some of the spotlights from the tall nightclubs on the main street had clicked on, but it would stay dark and deserted in the arm’s-width alleys of Golden Gai until customers started arriving much later.

Sato turned into a narrow dead-end with a patchwork of bars not much wider than their doors and stopped in front of the Pan-Pan Club. It was far ahead of the rendezvous time and Sato recited another of his rules: Never rush things

But this time, he broke it. It would be better to get rid of whatever was on the USB drives and go have a drink and a good meal with the cash he’d lifted. Sato knocked on the door—the only one not slathered in thick paint or handwritten signs. He got no answer. 

Before he could knock again, he sensed someone behind him. He fumbled for the handle of the stiletto inside his jacket and plucked the metal baton from his waistband, turning around with both hands ready.  

“Hand me the files,” the foreigner commanded in fluent Japanese. His tall, lean frame blocked the trickle of light from the alley beyond. A single overhead bulb cast their shadows in opposite directions.

Sato was surprised by how well he spoke Japanese, by how he knew about the files, by how he had, in fact, tracked him across the city, and managed to confront him right at that spot. How could this have happened? He’d never been cornered before.  

“It’s just easier if you hand them over,” the foreigner said. He held out his left hand and reset his feet and shoulders. His leather coat gleamed in the dim light.

Sato reached into his jacket for the drive-wiping DVD and tossed it onto the pavement between them. When he bent over to get it, he’d kick the foreigner in the head, stab him, and take off. The sides of the small bars were only a step away, so he’d have to be careful getting past. Fifteen years ago, he could have done it. Thirty years ago, it would have been as easy as picking a lock. 

The DVD shimmered on the dull gray of the concrete, but the foreigner did not even glance at it. From a sheath inside the front flap of his coat, the foreigner pulled a tanto sword as long as his forearm. Together, sword and arm could reach the walls of the cramped cul-de-sac encircling them. 

Sato clicked the stiletto and telescoped the baton with a flip of his wrist. The sword whirred and Sato jerked sideways as the sword crashed into the door above his shoulder, splintering the cheap wood. 

The sword pinched in place, Sato jabbed at the foreigner’s chest but his arms were too short and the foreigner was fast and limber. Blade and baton whisked the air. Sato backed against the closest wall to rebalance, breathing hard, trying to think.

“The USB.” The sword upright and his feet planted, the foreigner stared at Sato. 

Sato’s stiletto had no reach and the baton was too thin, but he swung them side-to-side in a defensive X as he broke for the opening to the alley. 

The tanto sword caught him from right hip to left rib. 

Sato’s knees buckled and he folded over like a split sack of rice. In the instant before his mid-section gushed from top and bottom, one of the USB drives flew out of his cut-open pocket and dropped through the grate of the sewer beside him. The foreigner snatched at it, but the memory drive tumbled into the pipes far out of reach below. 

Slumped over a concrete step, Sato wheezed and clutched at the warm stream of blood before his fingers loosened and his body slackened. He eyed the foreigner kneeling over the sewer with a small flashlight peering below, felt the ruffle of the foreigner going through his pockets, and dimly gazed at the tangled wires crisscrossing the alley overhead. 

Interview with Michael Pronko

Alexandra: Awesome job. Thank you so much. 

Tell us about what inspired you to write this series of mysteries. I noticed on your website that you talk about writing mystery, memoir and music. 

Where did the mysteries come from? 

Michael: I had written a lot about Tokyo over the years. I used to write for Newsweek Japan. And those were the foreigners perspective on Tokyo. What do you think? How do you see it? And I loved writing those. 

But they were seven or eight hundred word columns. And the longer I live here, the more stories are there. So taking Tokyo and putting it into essay format was great. And I still do that. But I just wanted to tell a longer story, a longer reaction about Tokyo. And the city has just I mean, there’s so many people there. It’s a complicated place. 

So the mystery seemed a very fitting form to respond to the city and tell something more about it from my point of view. 

Alexandra: Tell us a bit about Detective Hiroshi. Who is he? 

Michael: He’s kind of Japanese, but not Japanese. He spent a lot of time overseas in America. And he’s fluent in English. He’s an accountant, actually. But because of the homicides in Tokyo, it’s become increasingly international, with different people from different countries and crime leaping the borders. 

So the homicide department needed to have somebody who could both track the money and speak English. He has his Japanese side because he grew up here. But he also has a foreign point of view as well. He’s in Japan, but not totally of Japan, I guess. 

Alexandra: Does he work for the police department there, then?

Michael: Yes. But it’s not like an old school detectives that he also works with. 

So there’s Sakaguchi and Takamatsu. Sakaguchi is an ex sumo wrestler, turned policeman and then detective. And then Takamatsu is kind of the really old school, whatever it takes to get results, detective.

The three of them each have their own approach to the cases. But we see things through Hiroshi’s point of view. 

Alexandra: I thought it was really cool that one of the characters was an ex sumo wrestler. And it just occurred to me that that’s not well, how would I put this, that you don’t you think of sumo wrestlers as doing that job but not being anything else.

Is he based on someone you know or was that something you just came up with? 

Michael: I think there’s been a lot of sumo wrestlers over the years. And I love sumo. I was not fanatic about it, but I really enjoyed it. 

Usually you do think of sumo wrestlers as a wrestler, not a person. And, originally they were they were kind of gods, right. 

There’s sacred space inside the ring, and women are not allowed to go into that sacred space traditionally. There’s a lot of religious or spiritual elements to that as well.

But I find having him move to doing something, well, moral, as an ethical policeman and detective is an ethical job was really interesting so that he had the strength and power which sumo wrestlers have to develop lack of fear. But at the same time, he had this kind of moral quality to him. And he’s kind of a quiet type. 

He’s not as conventional in some ways what you think of a sumo wrestler, which is answering it. So he’s a little bit that way, but but something more as well. 

Alexandra: Interesting. And then the next question I had for you, I’m trying to figure out how to phrase it in. I feel like in the Western English speaking world, there’s there’s a certain culture of mysteries. So we might talk about the closed room mystery, starting in England, and cozy mysteries. And then in North America, thrillers, which are similar probably to what you’re writing.

Alexandra: Do you think that does Japan have its own murder mystery culture, in that way, in fiction? 

Michael: Yes, I think it does. 

The entire literary tradition from China and Korea and Japan. They they did have mysteries. And there were characters that were judges, essentially. Judges and the government that decided cases. 

And so they had their own way of kind of finding out what happened. 

But then when Japan was becoming more cosmopolitan after the major reforms, so the early part of 20th century, then there was wildly popular. I think just the same as in the West. There would be murder mysteries in the newspaper.

People would line up to go to the trials and and then putting different writers in to a more Western style format. This was in the 1930s.

But but after World War Two was when that really took off. So, yes, there is a tradition of that. And certainly now some of the Japanese mystery writers and thriller writers are really phenomenal.

But I think some of those writers tend to write Japanese thrillers, Japanese mysteries for Japanese. And of course, it’s interesting from the outside. But I think in some of my mysteries, I try to know who’s reading it from both sides.

So I’ve written for a Japanese audience, but I’ve written about Japan for a Western audience. So I might be just a little bit different from the Japanese writers. 

Alexandra: I imagine it’s interesting for you as someone born in the United States and now having lived in in Japan for a long time, straddling those cultural lines.

I think it’s interesting that your detective is Japanese and he’s not an American citizen living there.

Michael: I wanted to do that. And actually, he is probably based mostly on my students. Actually, a lot of my students had spent lots of time overseas. 

So, for example, their father was posted in Hong Kong or in New York or something. So those students or maybe one of their parents is from America or Britain or something. Those students kind of tend to gravitate towards my classes a little bit because they’re not, quote unquote, pure Japanese, because they speak English well. They understand the western point of view.

Hiroshi is is Japanese, but he also has that outside perspective. And some of my students who spent time abroad, years abroad, they often see things more like me than like Japanese word for them so that I could get inside Hiroshi’s point of view a little bit better, I think. 

Alexandra: Hiroshi is almost the flip side to you.

Michael: Yes. Yes, that’s right.

Alexandra: In The Moving Blade, one of the plot points pivots on a diplomat who has been who has been murdered. And you explore the the American bases that are over in Japan.

Do you want to just touch on that a little bit and tell us a bit about that? 

Michael: It’s interesting. The American bases are just part of Japan now. And they have been since World War Two.

One of the things about the bases is that they are a little bit unusual in the world in that everything inside it is basically secret. There is no reporting on that. There is no going inside and looking around.

There are days when that’s open and you can go inside. The Fourth of July. Things like that. And a couple of my students have worked on the bases, in the shops and things like that. So it’s not closed. 

But basically, these are military spaces and they are run under American military rule. So as as you might expect, there’s no ambivalence about the American presence there in places like, okay, now where large amount of land is given to the American bases.

People really don’t accept that and want to find some other solution for having those bases there.

But on the other hand, older generations of Japanese really appreciate the American presence. And they see the American bases as a protection from China, North Korea and things like that. So it’s a very, very complicated, heated issue.

I didn’t want to go into that per sey, but that’s an important part of of Japanese society, having INS’s there and it has a tremendous effect on the culture and government and politics and everything. So. 

Alexandra: Fascinating.

One final question for you. So there are two Tokyo mysteries out currently. The Last Train and The Moving Blade, which you read from today. And then there’s a third one coming out called Tokyo Traffic.

We’re recording this in March of 2020. And I think that book will be out soon. Is that right? 

Michael: Yes. I don’t know why that is taking a little bit longer than the others, but. But yeah, it’s almost done. 

So it’s also the same set of detectives and they’re investigating human trafficking through Japan and use of crypto currencies by various different kinds of people. Certainly people are using that for illegal transactions.

Hiroshi is trying to look at the government and the human traffickers and piece that together and find out what happened at the beginning of the plot, which is several murders. 

So that’s going to be out, I hope, by the end of April. Should be and end of April in Japan. April is kind of the restart of the year. 

There’s cherry blossoms and school starts, although with the corona virus, it may not start this year. We’re still going to waiting to hear. But I thought having it come out in April would be a good time to release it. 

Alexandra: Do you have plans for more Detective Hiroshi books?

Michael: Yes, I do. I have a couple of outlined already, so I’ll keep going with that series. 

I may do a stand-alone that focuses on Sakaguchi, who’s the sumo wrestler, and then the other detective Takamatsu is a little bit older, so I’ll do a maybe a prequel about him because he has his let’s just get this done style.

How are we gonna get this person? And he’s an intriguing character himself. So we’ll see which one of those I work on next. But I think I’ll do one more Hiroshi before I look at the other stand-alones.

Alexandra: Great. That’s good to know.

Thank you, Michael. This has been fantastic. So why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books? 

Michael: You can find out more about me on my website, which is MichaelPronko.com and you can find out pretty much everything there: latest news. There is a newsletter. Please sign up if you’re interested. I write a little bit about Tokyo and what’s happening and seasonal things. News of new releases.

I’m on Facebook, Twitter. Instagram. My students have forced me to get on Instagram. I have to text them. How do I something? So they’re teaching me slowly. 

Please check out my jazz site. JazzinJapan.com. That’s information about the jazz scene here. And I’ll have a guide book about jazz coming out sometime after the novel comes out. It’s almost done, but I don’t know. I never did a guidebook before, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m a real jazz fan, so check that out as well. 

Alexandra: I’ll put links to everything you’ve mentioned and notes as well.

Michael: Thank you for having me today. It’s been a real pleasure. I really enjoyed it. I had to ask the construction guys next door to be quiet for about an hour. I need to run over and tell them it’s OK to restart the construction and be noises. But that’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for having me. This great site. 

Alexandra: Thank you, Michael. Take care.

Michael: Bye now.