The Vermilion Thumbprint

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The Vermilion Thumbprint
Author: Hiroki Nagaoka
Specifications: ISBN  978-4575239638
176 pages
13.4 x 19.5 cm / 5.3 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Futabasha Publishers Ltd.
Tokyo, 2016
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A master of the puzzler mystery presents four exemplars of the genre, laying his groundwork and distributing clues with meticulous care as he builds to a climax that will have readers catching their breath in surprise.

The title work brings back the mother-daughter pair who appeared in the award-winning 2008 story Kataegiki (Overheard), with the 15-year-old daughter Natsuki narrating. Her mother Keiko is a cop. It has been two years since Keiko was recruited from the Burglary Department to become a detective in the Violent Crimes Department. Natsuki’s father was a cop as well, but was killed by a criminal who had a score to settle. Natsuki herself is fond of investigating things and has demonstrated an ability to think things through systematically, but her sights are set on becoming a newspaper reporter rather than following in her parents’ footsteps.

One day Keiko returns home late in the evening to find Natsuki looking at an album of her mother’s baby photos. Keiko reveals to Natsuki that while the woman who raised her (Keiko) has died, her birth mother, Chisa Hatano, is still alive. In fact, Chisa lives in a local nursing home, but Keiko has not seen her in five years because the last time she went to visit, her mother told her not to come anymore. Keiko’s father had died before she was born, so when Chisa had to be confined to a hospital due to lung disease shortly after having Keiko, she had been forced to give Keiko up for adoption.

That same evening, Keiko tells Natsuki that she’s recently been busy reinvestigating an old, unsolved case as part of a month-long push in her department to close cold cases before their statutes of limitations expire. The ever-curious Natsuki follows up by going to the library and looking through the bound edition of the local newspaper from five years before for a case like the one her mother described. She finds an incident in which a man just released from prison was killed on a quiet residential street. The report speculates that he had accosted a passerby, who tried to escape by pushing the man away a little too forcefully and accidentally killed him. The only lead in the case was a thumbprint found on the dead man’s clothing, and with no matches found among prints on file, the case had remained unsolved.

After the library, Natsuki proceeds to Chisa’s nursing home. Keiko had urged her to go and meet her biological grandmother, suggesting that she should take the album along to show her. Much as her mother’s description led her to expect, Natsuki finds an eccentric old woman who shows no interest in her granddaughter and has little to say except that being a cop is dangerous work.

On the final page of Natsuki’s baby album, labeled with her birthdate, are her footprint and handprint in vermilion ink. Next to them is Keiko’s signature accompanied by a full-sized thumbprint. Keiko had followed the example of the baby album put together by Chisa for her, which had Keiko’s foot- and handprints along with Chisa’s signature and thumbprint on its final page. As she was carefully reviewing the evidence in the unsolved case, Keiko recognized Chisa’s thumbprint from having seen it so often in her own baby album. In order to confirm her suspicion, she had urged Natsuki to visit Chisa with her album as a way of collecting fresh prints from Chisa’s hands.

Once she has gotten her confirmation, Keiko arrests her mother. When Chisa learned that she had killed the man she encountered on the quiet street, she had chosen not to turn herself in and instead cut ties with Keiko for fear that the link between them could damage Keiko’s career on the police force. In an affecting conclusion to another bit of carefully laid groundwork, readers learn that the anonymous sender of the handmade talismans Keiko has been receiving annually over the last 20 years is none other than Chisa.

The entire collection showcases author Hiroki Nagaoka’s gift for interweaving crime with human dramas that wrench readers’ hearts.