A Japanese professor whose character is loosely inspired by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician, philosopher, and author of the best-selling The Name of the Rose, is the protagonist of this historical mystery set at the beginning of the 20th century. Among the numerous historical figures adding color to the novel is literary giant Natsume Sōseki (1867?1916), still considered by many to be Japan’s greatest modern novelist.
The story begins in August 1905. Hostilities between Japan and Russia that had begun the year before remain open. Tōta Aso, 19, a high-school student, arrives in Tokyo to spend his summer vacation working as an assistant to Tokyo Imperial University professor Ēko (“Eco”) Unobe, 43, who hails from the same hometown. Unobe made his name as an enterprising and ambitious young scholar by writing a complete political history of Japan from ancient times down to the present while still in his twenties. Tōta has his sights set on getting into TIU to prepare himself for a career as a politician, and has little doubt that working under Professor Unobe’s tutelage for a month will be a tremendously valuable experience.
The first murder occurs in the library where Tōta is waiting to meet Unobe for the first time. The victim is a colleague of Unobe’s in the Law Department. Then two other professors affiliated with TIU are killed. Using Tōta as his assistant, Unobe swings into detective mode and sets his incisive mind to work solving the crimes. In his effort to zero in on the truth, the professor brings to bear a deep knowledge not only of the current political situation but also of the newest scientific and technical developments, art history, and even mathematics.
The Russo-Japanese War provides a crucial backdrop to the action. The Japanese have effectively emerged victorious following the Battle of Tsushima, but the terms of peace remain at issue. A group of seven TIU professors had beaten the drums of war prior to the beginning of hostilities, and the same group is now lambasting the government for softness in the peace negotiations. The three murder victims are all from this group. Unobe ultimately succeeds in identifying the three separate men responsible for the hits as well as the behind-the-scenes mastermind: the government-leaning newspaper publisher Sohō Tokutomi, who also hails from Unobe’s hometown.
Working under Unobe’s wing, Tōta meets numerous distinguished professors and politicians in the course of the investigation, and even has an audience with Emperor Meiji. He learns a great deal from the experience. Unobe’s daughter Sakurako provides a love interest, but Tōta fails to win her affections.
In a surprise twist at the end, we learn that Tōta Aso is a nickname conferred by Unobe, and the character’s real name is Mamoru Shigemitsu. A prominent diplomat and politician, Shigemitsu served as Minister of Foreign Affairs at the end of World War II and was the man who signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.
Filled with both humor and erudition, the work offers readers a journey into history and art that is both deeply insightful and highly entertaining.