Suzuki is angry. His wife died in an accident, caused by the son of a criminal who shows no remorse for the crime. So the young man, who is actually a mild person and teacher, decides to take revenge. The title of Kotaro Isaka’s thriller “Suzuki’s Revenge” reveals as much. So the teacher has infiltrated the criminal’s organization, works to gain the trust of his wife’s killer and has to realize that her life is not the only thing the gangster has on his conscience.
As Suzuki contemplates how far he’s willing to go to cover up, another hitman sits in front of his victim not far away. Calling himself the Whale, he has the massive build of a sea mammal, a penchant for reading a tattered paperback of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and he has a gift for convincing people to take their own lives. He has already sent some politicians and CEOs to the afterlife at the request of their competitors. He knows exactly how many, for their spirits haunt him. Sometimes they show up on a subway ride, sometimes in the middle of the hotel room where the whale tries to convince its victims of the necessity of death.
Suzuki also speaks to a spirit. He talks to his wife, acts out scenes with her over and over again – and wisely heeds her advice, which sometimes saves his life, since he is a teacher through and through and neither hardened nor clever enough for society , which he went to on his revenge trip. This level of spirit talk not only connects Suzuki and the whale, it is also the only digression into Japanese culture and religion that Isaka allows herself.
The whale will once discuss with a spirit in which form it wants to be reborn. Apart from such mysticism, Isaka’s contract killers, who almost exclusively populate the novel here – civilian personnel hardly ever appear – could just as well be up to mischief in a European or American metropolis.
What Isaka writes sometimes sounds straight out of an American film, a Japanese literary critic once remarked. Although the author’s books were already among the bestsellers in Japan – he has now published more than forty novels in his homeland, some have also been adapted into films there – Isaka was only just beginning to become famous in English-speaking countries . His breakthrough came in 2022 with the film adaptation of his novel “Maria Beetle”, which was released in cinemas as the American action film “Bullet Train” starring Brad Pitt.
It is also about contract killers and criminals who run into each other on an express train and realize that they sometimes have the same target. Shortly before the theatrical release last summer, the novel was also published in German. “Suzuki’s Revenge” is now the second book that has been translated in this country. He keeps the tone, which is strongly reminiscent of the hard, mellow dialogues of said action films, here as well. For example, a contract killer asks another how he deals with it when he kills: “Do you then make up excuses or justifications, or do you recite sutras?” The person asked only reacts with irritation: “What does he want from me? Like a catcher asking a pitcher if the hitter has feelings for the ball when he hits it.”
Inspired by Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen
Writing was never a hobby for the author, even if he had to do it on the side for a long time. He began writing short stories while still a student. When he worked as an engineer after college, he got up at 5 a.m. every morning to create scenes for his books. Sometimes he sat down at his laptop after work and continued to write. In 2000, his first novel was published in Japan and immediately received awards. Two years later, his wife convinced him to give up his engineering job and devote himself entirely to books.
As a child he devoured crime fiction, loved Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. But his novels have little to do with the classic whodunits. They are more likely to be found in its Japanese competition, some of which has appeared in German in recent years. Think of Riku Onda’s “The Aosawa Murders” (FAZ of May 2, 2022), in which a family dies from cyanide in the drinks at a lavish party and only the blind daughter survives; or the work of the Japanese crime fiction master Seishi Yokomizo, which is just being discovered in this country. The detective novel “The Mystery Honjin Murders” (FAZ of November 7, 2022), in which an investigator tries to solve the murder in a closed room in the late 1930s, in which a newlywed couple was killed at night with a samurai sword, started last year. Further translations of his books, which are in no way inferior to the crime classics of the Western canon in terms of language and inventiveness, are now to follow.
Isaka writes differently, less subtle, less sensitive to language, which is simply due to the choice of subgenres. Its debut touched on the fantasy genre by pairing a policeman with a talking scarecrow and a cat that can predict the weather. Since then he has devoted himself to hard thrillers, in which knives and sticks like to end up in detailed body parts. That’s how it is in “Suzuki’s revenge” – where only contract killers are on the road. Only the character Suzuki, who is not made for this game, attracts the sympathy of the readers with her clumsiness. One hopes that she survives.
Kotaro Isaka: “Suzuki’s Revenge”. Thriller. Translated from the Japanese by Sabine Mangold. Hoffmann and Campe Verlag, Hamburg 2023. 304 p., hard copy, €24.