Book review: 『13階段』by Kazuaki Takano

Cover of 13階段. Cover illustration: In a very dark cave, we are facing stone stairs that go up towards the light.
Title: 13階段 (13かいだん)
First published: 2001
Page Count: 400
Sentenced to death for a double murder, Ryo Kihara has no memory of the crime because of an accident. Prison guard Shoji Nango, with the help of young Junichi Mikami who just got out of jail himself, is commissioned to help prove Kihara’s innocence.

This novel deals with wrongful conviction and capital punishment, two topics that I am very interested in. The 13 steps of the title refer to the 13 administrative steps and procedures between the sentencing and the execution. The author used a lot of resources to write this novel: there is an impressive bibliography of 25 titles at the end of the book. Yet, at no point did it feel like the author was forcing any knowledge on us. I find that facts and explanations were well integrated in the story.

Talking about the story, I found the investigation really engrossing. The murder happened 10 years ago and Shoji and Junichi only have one single clue to start their investigation, and the process leading to Kihara’s execution is already underway. This makes for an exciting crime story and race against time.

The only thing that bothered me a little is that some elements felt like they were here for their impact, and they did not feel very credible to me. I find this especially true with stories dealing with justice and retribution, where it sometimes looks like the moral of the story comes first, at the cost of a realistic turn of events. So the end felt a little far-fetched to me, but it is still an engrossing read that raises important questions. Overall, an impressive debut novel!

If you are interested in these topics, I can recommend two non-fiction books that I have read and liked:

On capital punishment: 誰も知らない死刑の舞台裏 by Shoji Kondo

On wrongful convictions: 殺人犯はそこにいる by Kiyoshi Shimizu