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The Kimono Tattoo
Rebecca Copeland
Kyoto comes to vivid life in this polished, thoughtful thriller, the debut novel from Copeland, a critic and editor who has translated several works of Japanese literature into English. That experience informs the mysteries of The Kimono Tattoo, which finds delicious suspense and surprise in the streets and garment manufacturers of Kyoto, and in the pages of a new work by Shōtarō Tani, an esteemed writer who, years after vanishing, wants narrator Ruth Bennett to translate his unpublished, unfinished, and narratively unstable latest novel. Presumably autobiographical, that manuscript, for Ruth, becomes “a dark door.” She’s jolted by a scene in that work of a heavily tattooed woman apparently murdered—a woman named for the author Shōtarō’s real-life sister, Satoko, a designer and businesswoman who had once revolutionize the kimono industry but now has long been absent from public life.

Even more jolting: news announcements of the discovery of a real-life corpse, possibly Satoko. Ruth grew up in Kyoto, and soon she sets herself to making sense of this mystery, especially attempting to unravel possible messages in tattoos described in the text. That demands research and investigation that will send Ruth into the worlds of skin art, kimonos, and even the yakuza. Copeland excels at capturing the intuitive work of ferreting out urgent secrets, presenting detective work and translation as fascinatingly related skills: Ruth must probe the curious facts until she reveals truths that a killer prefers to keep hidden.

The investigation comes with a cost: a threat to innocents Ruth cares about. The novel’s literate and humane, leaning on the “literary” in “literary thriller.” It’s also gripping, with deftly plotted twists of bursts of deadly action in both the narrative present and in the fiction-within-the-fiction that, increasingly, seems like it might not be fiction at all. Copeland handles the milieu with sensitivity and an eye for the killer detail, and an infectious sense of cultural discovery, even as the suspense tightens.

Takeaway: Gripping literary thriller about translation and possible murder in Kyoto.

Comparable Titles: Suki Kim’s The Interpreter, Amy Tasukada’s The Yakuza Path series.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A