Review: Nightshade by Jonelle Patrick

NIGHTSHADE is the first in the series of ‘Only in Tokyo’ mysteries by Jonelle Patrick. As well as being a great whodunit, it’s a valuable read for would-be visitors and a fascinating one for residents too. 

Nightshade begins with three bodies in a car in a Shinto shrine’s parking lot. It looks like a triple suicide, except that one of the victims, Rika, a Goth Lolita has no link to the two older bodies, a married couple, she is found with. 

Rika’s best friend is Yumi Hata. Yumi went to university in the U.S. but is now back in Tokyo. She is living with her parents, working as an English translator and feels she no longer fits into traditional Japanese society. Were it not for Rika, Yumi would feel completely isolated. So when Rika is found dead – suspected of taking part in a suicide pact (jisatsu) – Yumi is devastated.  

What is a Goth Lolita doing committing suicide together with a high-profile married couple? Rika was happy and had no suicidal tendencies. Yumi starts to find holes in the picture the police are eager to accept. 

As it happens, the police investigator in charge of Rika’s case is Yumi’s old schoolmate Detective Kenji Nakamura, a young and slightly jaded career civil servant. After some persuading, he also wants to clear Rika’s name. Their relationship causes all kinds of complications, first to the case and then to her ripening romance/arranged marriage with the son of one of Tokyo’s most prominent families. Even though Yumi is engaged, Kenji is still a bit hung up on her, the girl he’s known since elementary school, and it doesn’t help that Kenji has grown into an unexpectedly attractive man. 

As Yumi and Kenji dig up more evidence, they discover that Rika’s ‘suicide’ is not what it seems. Though Yumi’s no detective herself, her relationship with the victim sets up the duo’s partnership, and Detective Nakamura needs her to help him navigate Japanese youth culture. Chasing Rika’s murderer, Yumi and Kenji trace online connections which become strands in the web that threaten to drag Yumi to the same deadly fate as her friend. The clock is ticking as they race to find the killer before the next victim is targeted…

So begins Nightshade by Jonelle Patrick…

Nightshade is a compelling mystery with distinctive characters, a fast-moving plot, a strong romantic thread, and a wonderful setting. Author Jonelle Patrick hooks you by throwing you straight into the action through the killer’s eyes – a suspenseful perspective that transcends the norm.

Patrick splits her time between Tokyo and San Francisco. When she’s not writing about murders she runs a blog, Only in Japan, and a travel website, The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had, featuring off-the-beaten-path Japan highlights. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime.

Jonelle Patrick is both an outstanding plotter and an excellent writer. In her debut novel, Nightshade, the story itself is entertaining but the genius is in how she effortlessly weaves Japanese traditions, both old and new, into the text. Readers who love all things Japan will be entranced, while others will become quick and curious initiates. Patrick has a sharp sense of what makes Japan fascinating and also baffling to outsiders. She takes you on a journey through omiai dating, Lolita fashionistas, trendy bars, social elite, otaku culture, maid cafes, underground clubs, love hotels, online identities, Japanese police hierarchy, assisted suicide, the All-Kanto kanji championship and hostess clubs. Each setting in the novel is richly evocative; Patrick’s depiction of the Japanese way of life with its traditions, rituals and subcultures is utterly fascinating. Few fiction books deal with the Lolita scene in such depth. There is some ‘peak Japan’ too – the murder has taken place during Cherry Blossom season (of course). 

Japanese culture – and subculture – isn’t sugar-coated or glorified, nor is it dragged through the mud. Readers who have little familiarity with Japanese culture will appreciate the mystery and likely learn a lot of cultural tidbits. Those with a greater understanding will feel like someone is finally telling a story that really befits modern Japan with its subtlety and extremes, exposing the suicide culture and the dress-up culture, as well as the very strong conformist way of thinking. 

The story is full of local detail and does not lapse into a patronising or didactic tone even when some finer details become central to the plot, such as why a suspect might be released from custody due to idiosyncrasies of Japanese law. It is easy for pacing to get affected when other authors try this, but in Nightshade there is just enough detail to understand the setting without getting bogged down. From a sociological perspective there is great insight into the influence of Japanese culture on the characters’ behaviour juxtaposed against their inner ego and turmoil. The story is very relevant within the current discussions around mental health, namely depressed teenagers who can’t take the pressures of living up to their parents’ ideals of studying hard to get into a good school or university, getting a well-paid job or marrying into money. Japan does have a high suicide rate, and Patrick handles this complex topic with sensitivity. Ritual suicide is still, in some quarters, considered a noble way to end suffering, stress and shame. It forms a stark counterpoint to the Japan of Pokémon, Hello Kitty and Mario. 

Well-developed characters, both primary and supporting

Patrick’s characters are well fleshed out; Yumi walks a fine line between traditional Japanese and emboldened modern woman. It is good to read about the camaraderie that Yumi’s friends share. Depending on your perspective, Yumi is either brave or foolish. She goes all-in to get to the bottom of what happened to Rika but, at times, comes across a little too much like the damsel in distress. In many ways, she seems grown up and independent but also unable to sustain that confidence. 

Detective Kenji Nakamura doesn’t show it but he likes to have Yumi around while he investigates the suicide case. His beat is the nondescript neighbourhood of Komagome, – an everyday suburb away from the pace of Shinjuku or Shibuya that doesn’t feature in most tourist itineraries (or most resident’s itineraries for that matter) I suspect that was a deliberate choice by Patrick and helps establish her Tokyo cred. 

There are some extremely well-realised supporting characters too; the hacker, Ghost (“his hair was cut in the spiky style favoured by DragonBall Z characters”) or Tommy Loud AKA Rowdy-san and the Australian crime tech married to the Superintendent General’s daughter who speaks Japanese like a native “whose very name reinforced the Aussie stereotype”. The fact that we also get a glimpse of Rika before she died makes her more relatable and the story more meaningful. 

Nightshade doesn’t feel like a first novel. The extensive background Patrick includes about the culture of Japan is fascinating and one can tell how much of her work comes from on-the-ground research and experience. You can’t fake knowing Japan — you have to live it and breathe it.  

The book does have some of the tropes required of the genre: the characters have to have blind spots, and there has to be some obstacle to full-on police involvement, or the mystery won’t unfold in an entertaining way. Patrick does a great job of making the story believable enough under those constraints, and we get time to see our characters grow and learn from their mistakes. I’d have preferred a full resolution at the end rather than a read-the-next-book teaser. However, the core mystery was more-than-satisfactorily resolved, so this is a minor quibble. 

I was amazed and pleasantly surprised to find that the book contains photos of key locations and cultural settings, giving it a real-world feel that a reader uninitiated in all things Japan, can greatly benefit from. The photographs also draw you in and pique your imagination in a way that enhances the genre beyond just another thriller set in a foreign country. 

The whodunnit delivers, and the plot achieves denouement without inconsistencies. Nightshade is a fast-paced, fun read that draws you in right away delivering a love story, cultural insight and a scintillating murder mystery all in one—highly recommended. 

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