Sunday, 18 May 2014

A Kiss of Fire - by Masako Togawa

Sometime ago I read and enjoyed Togawa's The Master Key which won the Edogawa Rampo Award way back in 1962, recently a copy of A Kiss Of Fire came my way and the jacket art alone grabbed my attention, although unfortunately I can't see mention of the artist's name anywhere, which is a shame, the book, Hi no seppun was translated by Simon Grove and published in the U.K by Chatto and Windus and previously in the U.S by Dodd, Mead and Company. A Kiss of Fire is a novel that's slightly difficult to fit into any one genre, perhaps it could be best described as an off kilter crime novel, something that I remember from reading The Master Key is of the originally inventive twists and turns Togawa incorporates into her storytelling. At it's beginning three boys witness a fire that kills an aspiring painter, when interviewed the boys claim that they saw a man shaped like a bat who breathed fire ascending the stairs of the building, one of the three boys was the painter's son. After this introductory opening, which sets up the preliminary scenario the novel accelerates forward twenty six years later revisiting the lives of the three boys whose lives have each gone their separate ways, until that is until a spate of arsonist attacks. Ikuo is now a fireman pursuing the elusive arsonist, but in the process he becomes so embroiled he becomes a suspect as his ID and wallet are discovered in the stomach of a lion who falls victim to the arsonists flames. Ryosaku is now a detective who is also on the arson case, in the process he becomes involved with Ikuo's girlfriend Chieko, finally of the three boys is the painter's son Michitaro who has become a director of the family's insurance company. Under chapters named The Fireman, The Detective, The Arsonist, Togawa begins to put the pieces together, at first each of the characters are unaware that they are the three friends who in their youths witnessed the fire that killed Michitaro's father.
Over this progressing narrative it becomes slowly more clearer as to who the arsonist is, or so we think, in the meantime Ikuo has self doubts that he might be the arsonist, as an actress he has an affair with is killed by an arson attack, and a pair of jogging shoes linking him to her incriminates him to the degree that he remains suspect number one, but as Ryosaku points out as Ikuo was under police surveillance he is ruled out as a suspect. A clue that begins to emerge is that of something seen by Ikuo in the fire twenty six years previously, running up to the second floor Ikuo had caught Michitaro's father in a compromising position with a young nurse. The story is full of some interesting side plots and arresting motifs that at first seem to sit out of place with the rest of the advancing story, of a local temple where Michitaro's grandmother visits and places a sutra, and of stone effigies that resemble dogs or lions, these things Ryosaku picks up on in the course of his investigations, the temple is also fighting a neighbouring development to turn land adjacent to the temple into apartments. A motif that appears as details of the scenario of the original fire unfold is that of a dog with a burning tail used as a fuse to light the fire, another trigger of a fire later in the book is that of a crystal ball placed in a window to magnify the rising sun's rays to ignite the flames.
The deeper mystery of the novel is the reason or motive of the attacks, the main options are that it could be to cover up the escalation of a sham insurance claim linking back to the death of the lion which was secretly highly insured, another is that the arsonist was carrying out his crimes to satiate an almost orgasmic thrill he got when starting fires, or another path begins to lead to Michitaro's grandmother whose husband started the insurance company wanting to avenge the death of her son, the painter, Togawa's great ability is to draw this picture that links each of these different paths so closely together that it's left only to the final stage of the book for all to be made clear. Towards the end of the novel Michitaro is at the centre of a kidnapping plot, in the name of the book Togawa uses it in relation to the dangerous attraction of fire and also of it being utilised as an instrument of vengeance, another imaginative motif that that appears in the novel is the bundle of burnt matches used in the original fire preserved by Michitaro's grandmother as a strange slightly macabre momentum. The novel does show it's age in a number of places, (in one scene I think Ryosaku is described as wearing a 'safari' suit), although this does add to the flavour of the novel and it seems more erotically charged than I remember The Master Key being, but I enjoyed this greatly for Togawa's originality and inventiveness.      
As well as her writing Masako Togawa is also known as a chanson singer and also as a writer for television and for her many appearances on television. Aside from The Master Key and A Kiss of Fire another two novels have been translated Slow Fuse and The Lady Killer which won the Naoki Prize, although I think they are all currently out of print it would be great to see these reappear with a reissue.   
Masako Togawa's entry on Wikipedia
for a glimpse of the jacket art - A Kiss of Fire at Library Thing
Hi no seppun at

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