First published in 1977, this detective novel won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1978. It has been adapted into film the same year.
Even though I can see the appeal this book can have for some readers, it was not compelling enough to me. The story has everything to drag me in: a private detective investigating mysterious murders occurring inside a well-known family of toys manufacturers… I am here for that! But two things prevented me from enjoying the book.
First, this story is filled with information about the history of mechanical toys. The topic is interesting, but the amount of information we get was a little bit too big in my opinion. Characters would sometimes start explaining something at length, which would dramatically slowing the pace of the novel and creating frustrating digressions in the middle of the investigation. A whole chapter diving into the life of a toy maker felt very long and seemed unrelated to the case.
Overall, the tricks, mechanisms and devices are the central part of the novel, not the murder investigation. If our private detective is face with a murder on one side and a labyrinth on the other, she will choose to investigate the labyrinth. I found that the novel was full of these frustrating and awkward moments where the characters take strange decisions.
This leads us to my second point: the characters’ reactions sometimes do not make sense. For example, would you invite private detectives into your family, share family secrets and anecdotes with them if you knew that they had been following and observing you? The way our detective and her assistant are accepted into the family and almost treated like members of the family felt very strange.
Even more unexplainable is the reaction of the family members to the deaths occurring. Some characters should obviously be very affected, but they don’t seem to care or sometimes even take notice of what happened. One character in particular starts an exposé about mechanical toys at a time in the story where this feels very unnatural.
If no one cares about the murders, I don’t see why the reader should. I don’t really like detective stories that show the murder as just a puzzle to be solved, without showing how it affects the characters.
Finally, I should also add that I disliked our protagonist, the young and newly recruited assistant of an ex-police officer who now works as a private detective. The novel does not provide a lot of information on him, we don’t know much about his life and personality. I found that he takes foolish decisions throughout the story and found it frustrating to have to follow him.
I can imagine that if you enjoy mechanisms and the history of toys, you will certainly enjoy this novel more than I did.