The menacing serial killer Masquerade is an ever-lurking threat to beautiful young women around the city—multiple bodies have been found with a missing limb and their face removed, earning the killer their name. Newbie Officer Yuri Uguisu has been obsessively dedicated to the case since the first of the slayings—the victim, her younger sister—and now she finds herself on the murder case of an old classmate, who seems to be yet another one preyed upon by Masquerade. But this new body doesn’t quite fit the M.O. of the past, much to the chagrin of Yuri’s fellow officers, and so other leads are investigated. To help work the case, her partner introduces her to psychologist and freelance detective Seiren Higano—a man with a larger connection to the case than first thought.
Masquerade and the Nameless Women is a self-contained short novel by Eiji Mikage (author of popular light novel series The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria), translated by Daniel Morales and released in English by Vertical.
When this book was first announced as licensed, the title was Serial Killer Detective. As someone with little background knowledge on the story, I had two ideas to the potential of this novel—either it would feature a Dexter-esque vigilante serial killer who worked within the police department and used specific knowledge to avoid being caught bumping off bad guys; or it was a story of a detective who was notable for having caught multiple serial killers, and was now following the hardest case of his career. Instead of either of these guesses on my part, this book is much more in line with Hannibal—of a genius murderer who inserts himself into the investigation to control it’s outcome, unknown to law enforcement that the culprit is right under their noses.
Despite the premise of this novel, this book isn’t a murder mystery. In fact, Mikage introduces Seiren Higano as the serial killer Masquerade in the first line of the prologue. As an audience, there’s no doubt that this newest killing is the work of infamous killer Masquerade, as we see him both introduce himself and dump the body before the main story starts; but there are too many inconsistencies from past Masquerade killings for the police, so they assume it’s a copycat. When Yuri’s partner Yamaji takes her to Higano’s office for consultation on finding the culprit, we know that they’re essentially inviting the vampire into their home willingly—but that leads us to the true purpose of this story: a tense mind game as to whether Higano will be found out, or if he’ll be able to manipulate the situation from the inside in order to frame an innocent man.
Before any of that though, we have to go back to the beginning; the discovery of a body. Found by the pier with a missing foot and a face removed from the nose-down, she’s unrecognizable. The unfortunate corpse is later identified thanks to dental records as Reina Miyoko, of which this story focuses. She was Yuri’s classmate during high school, and incredibly popular and beautiful. Despite this though, it seems impossible for Yuri, or anyone else, to find a photograph of her—or to even remember her face. Her boyfriend she was living with doesn’t have a photo, nor does her fiancé or father. Any description the three men give is vague and often conflicting—the only unanimously agreed-upon point being that she was beautiful. It seems like Reina Miyoko never existed at all, despite the obvious evidence of a murder.
So, although this is a murder, the real mystery is who was Reina Miyoko? A young woman with both a separate boyfriend and fiancé, a father who rarely saw her and too many discrepancies between the facts. Each of the three men in her life become suspects, and it’s fascinating to see how this story unfolds—because yes, we know Reina Miyoko was the victim of a serial killer, but we soon learn she’s far from being an innocent bystander once the various facets of her life are revealed; including the mysterious disappearances of her three closest high school friends.
There are two concurrent story lines here. The first is of the nameless woman Reiko Miyoko and the absurdity of her life—the main plot thread, and what counts as the police investigation. Yuri, as a new officer, is stuck in the thick of it all, watching as secrets and lies of Reina’s life are spilled before her very eyes. Whether it’s gut-instinct or just the years she’s spent swearing revenge for her sister, she’s convinced the crime is one of Masquerade’s despite the inconsistencies—ultimately having her opinion dismissed when trying to share that theory. She doesn’t have enough experience to be confident in her reasoning, and so doesn’t push ideas in the face of seemingly-convincing alternate theories. She also describes herself as totally average-looking; so much so, that her right hand is the only thing she’s ever been complimented on—by Reina Miyoko herself—as being uniquely and strikingly beautiful.
The second story line is Higano’s; why he kills people, and why the Reina Miyoko death was so unlike his usual. This plot focuses on his manipulations and deductions about the case he knows all the actual facts about, and the growing relationship and interest he has in Yuri, who has proclaimed herself to be hunting down and capturing Masquerade. She’s the only one he trusts will finally figure him out and respects her greatly as a rival despite her inexperience—only wondering if his growing fascination of her will prevail before she does.
Masquerade and the Nameless Women is a middling thriller that continues to be unpredictable throughout. Despite leading with the Masquerade killings, the purpose was never meant to be a whodunit murder mystery; instead a crazy unraveling of a young woman’s secret plot, and the roles each man in her life filled. The writing style is typical of Mikage, and existing fans of The Empty Box and Zeroth Maria will find many similar techniques shared between the two.
As a single book, it feels self-contained enough to satisfy the story within, but there is also great potential to expand this premise further. If ever more novels were written for this setting, I’d enjoy seeing more development of the (one-sided and unrealized) rivalry between Yuri and Higano to one reminiscent of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. Cat-and-mouse games are only as good as they are tense, and for this first book there wasn’t enough focus on that aspect to be able to call it successful, or to recommend it to more seasoned thriller fans.
Gee’s Rating: Strong start, potential for more.
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