'The Kamogawa Food Detectives' review: You'll savor Hisashi Kashiwai's mysteries Hisashi Kashiwai's charming novel centers on a diner where carefully reconstructed meals help unlock mysteries of memory and regret.


Book Reviews

You'll savor the off-beat mysteries served up by 'The Kamogawa Food Detectives'

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This is FRESH AIR. The first novel of a bestselling Japanese mystery series has recently been translated into English. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that while the novel "The Kamogawa Food Detectives" share some similarities with the Netflix show "Midnight Diner," the book follows its own unconventional mystery recipe.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For me, it's a sip of blackberry brandy - the bargain bin kind that my mother kept in the back of a kitchen cabinet. She would dole out a spoonful to me if I had a cold. The very words blackberry brandy still summon up the sense of being cared for a day home from school, nestled under a wool blanket on the couch, watching reruns of "I Love Lucy." That spoonful of brandy is my Proust's madeleine in fermented form.

Clients seek out the Kamogawa Diner, however, because their elusive memories can't be accessed by something as simple as a bottle of rail liquor. Most find their way to the unmarked restaurant on a narrow back street in Kyoto, Japan, because of a tantalizing ad in a food magazine. The ad cryptically states Kamogawa Diner, Kamogawa Detective Agency. We find your food. Entering through a sliding aluminum door, intrepid clients are greeted by the chef Nagare, a retired widowed police detective, and Koishi, his sassy 30-something daughter, who conducts interviews and helps cook.

In traditional mystery stories, food and drink are often agents of destruction. Think, for instance, of Agatha Christie and her voluminous menu of exotic poisons. But at the Kamogawa Diner, carefully researched and reconstructed meals are the solutions, the keys to unlocking mysteries of memory and regret. The "Kamogawa Food Detectives" is an offbeat, bestselling Japanese mystery series by Hisashi Kashiwagi that began appearing in 2013. Now the series is being published in this country, translated into English by Jesse Kirkwood. The first novel, called "The Kamogawa Food Detectives," is composed of interrelated stories with plots as ritualistic as "The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes." In every story, a client enters the restaurant, describes a significant but hazily remembered meal. And after hearing their stories, Nagare, the crack investigator, goes to work. Maybe he'll track down the long-shuttered restaurant that originally served the remembered dish and the sources of its ingredients. Sometimes he'll even identify the water the food was cooked in. One client says he wants to savor the udon cooked by his late wife just one more time before he remarries, another wants to eat the mackerel sushi that soothed him as a lonely child.

But the aftereffects of these memory meals are never predictable. As in conventional talk therapy, what we might call here the taste therapy that the Kamogawa Food Detectives practice sometimes forces clients to swallow bitter truths about the past. In the standout story called "Beef Stew," for instance, an older woman comes in hoping to once again taste a particular beef stew she ate only once, in 1957 at a restaurant in Kyoto. She dined in the company of a fellow student, a young man whose name she can't quite recall. But she does know that the young man impetuously proposed to her and that she ran out of the restaurant. She tells Koishi that, of course, it's not like I can give him an answer after all these years, but I do find myself wondering what my life would have been like if I'd stayed in that restaurant and finished my meal.

Nagare eventually manages to recreate that lost beef stew. But some meals, like this one, stir up appetites that can never be sated. As a literary meal, "The Kamogawa Food Detectives" is offbeat and charming, but it also contains more complexity of flavor than you might expect. Nagare sometimes tinkers with those precious lost recipes, especially when they keep clients trapped in false memories. Nagare's Holmes-like superpowers as an investigator are also a strong draw. Given the faintest of clues - the mention of a long-ago restaurant with an open kitchen, an acidic, almost lemony taste to a mysterious dish of longed for yellow rice, some Bonito flakes - Nagare recreates and feeds his clients the meals they're starving for, even as he releases others from the thrall of meals past.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Kamogawa Food Detectives," by Hisashi Kashiwai. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Jeffrey Wright. He's nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "American Fiction," which is nominated for Best Film. He plays an obscure novelist who cynically writes a book under a pseudonym that's intentionally full of cliches about drugs, violence and poverty to mock the so-called authentic writing that's expected from Black authors. The book is taken seriously, becomes an acclaimed bestseller, and leads to problems. We'll talk about the film and Wright's long career in Hollywood. I hope you can join us.


GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


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