In Reference to Murder

August 08, 2017

Author R&R with Michael Pronko

Michael Pronko has won numerous awards for his three collections of writings about life in Tokyo. He has written about Japanese culture, art, jazz, society, architecture, and politics for Newsweek JapanThe Japan TimesArtscape Japan, as well as other venues. He has appeared on NHK and Nippon Television and runs his own website, Jazz in Japan. He teaches American Literature and Culture at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo and after class wanders Tokyo contemplating its intensity.

His most recent novel is The Last Train, a mystery-thriller set in Tokyo. (The second in the series, Japan Hand, will be out in February 2018.) When The Last Train opens, Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly settled into his life investigating white-collar crime in Tokyo. But after an American businessman turns up dead, Hiroshi’s mentor Takamatsu drags him out to the notorious and intriguing hostess clubs and futuristic skyscraper offices of Tokyo in search of a possible killer. When Takamatsu goes missing, Hiroshi teams up with ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi as they scour Tokyo’s sacred temples, corporate offices, and industrial wastelands to find out where Takamatsu went and why an average-seeming woman could have been driven to murder. The novel takes an intense look at the nuances of Japanese interpersonal relationships and the power dynamics of gender roles and how women—and men, too—are treated in this ancient society.

Michael stops by In Reference to Murder today to discuss the book and how he goes about researching:

As a writer, I don’t, thankfully, suffer from writer’s block, but I do sometimes suffer from research blockade. That’s the moment where I have to stop to find out what I need to know before I can go forward. That’s not a bad thing, but a natural and necessary part of creating a narrative. Writing my first Hiroshi detective novel, The Last Train, research blockade often put a hold on production to focus on content.

Even though I’ve lived in Tokyo for twenty years, it was sometimes impossible to produce clear, strong sentences (i.e. a “form”) without knowing certain cultural and non-cultural details (i.e. “content”). For example, I can’t elegantly and succinctly describe what a machine lathe looks like without looking at one. I can’t describe a night in a net café without knowing the cost, and I can’t put in a fatal wound without looking at images of a sword cut. I think of research as finding the right content to fill out and improve the form.

It would be nice if all research could be done ahead of time, but it rarely works like that for me. Working on Japan Hand, the second in the Hiroshi series, I first read extensively about America’s military bases in Japan and the history of Japan and America’s military alliance. But, that was not enough. Small details still needed to be checked and added while writing. I can’t just load up the research cart and let it flow. It’s a back and forth process.

Ongoing research, as I think of it, is not just information about history, dates, or facts, though. It involves much more. To me, in addition to the background textual and informational input, research involves different kinds of content: experience, sensory details, specialized and arcane knowledge, and a lot of self-examination. All these are necessary to produce a good, solid base of research upon which to build prose with energy and clarity and believability.

Experiential research

I love to stand and look and feel places. Since Tokyoites rarely do that, I often look a bit foolish, but that’s OK. It takes time to sink in. Other experiences can be difficult and expensive. An evening at a hostess club can set you back a week’s salary. But to not experience firsthand what it’s like to have beautiful women pouring your drinks and making small talk is to not have done the research. (And for the record, it’s very weird.) For other experiences, like ramen noodle restaurants, I like to sit at the counter slurping and imagining the novel’s characters there. All that ‘research’ soaks into your unconscious and influences the writing of scene, setting, character, and conflict. Other experiential research can be pure chance. I came across the cleaning up of a train suicide twenty years ago. That experience stayed with me and became part of the novel.

Sensory research

This is similar to experiential, but more focused. I often take photos of places I’ll use in my novels. I also search for photos of specific things online. Sensory details put readers in a place and make them feel it more deeply. The smell of a canal, the texture of a rusted staircase, the taste of sake—if I see an image of it, I can more easily conjure it in words. The real world is a hard thing to describe, but sensory input can make a scene come alive, or in the case of a murder scene, become dead. Looking online for photographs or images of places or objects often spurs my sensory memory. That may not seem like research in the traditional sense, but sensory impressions can be as powerful as historical facts.

Specialized research

For my novel Japan Hand, the killer uses a short sword. So, I wanted to experience a sword in person, which was terrifying. I also did a lot of traditional research, like reading the history of swords in Japan, and texts of swordsmen like Takuan Soho and Miyamoto Musashi. But that potentially passive history of swords and theory of swordsmanship was activated by experiencing swords up close. I also ask people who know. One of my friends who studied aikido for decades dropped me to the tatami when I asked him how you flip someone. He just twisted my arm—somehow—and I was down. And yes, it hurt. But, it made it clear how powerful martial arts are. Reading about it or watching a YouTube video doesn’t cause any pain.

Internal research

Inside everyone is a library of emotions, confusions, memories and reactive tendencies. Tapping into that internal catalogue helps to ground the story in an internal world as well as an external world. That can be difficult when a character is entirely different, like the killer in The Last Train, who is a Japanese woman from a working-class background working as a hostess. I’m none of those things, but to achieve emotional veracity, writers must look deeply inside themselves to find human truths and values. Though the protagonist is so different from me, she’s similar in her respect for hard working people, her outrage at unfairness, and her ability to trust herself. (Actually, she’s better at that self-trust thing than me). Except for intimate friends, where else could one research emotions and values except inside oneself?


With any kind of research, there’s the danger of over-research. I know much more about hostesses, swords, train schedules and making ramen (I helped on a couple programs for NHK TV) than I really care to. Research is always inefficient. You end up with too much detail and end up editing out the vast majority. But I think exclusion and editing are part of the writing process. You can’t use it all, but it’s important to know it, so you can choose what has the greatest impact from that research. Choosing well is as important as knowing a lot. As a professor of literature, I know just how to kill students’ interest—tell them everything. Research is more like a spice than the main meat.

Too fresh research

I think there’s also a danger with fresh research. When I started researching swords, I became so enthusiastic I’d write long paragraphs describing the details of the fittings, the way of polishing, the exact way to swing a sword, the long history and fascinating Zen theories. But do readers want to wade through all that? Of course not. Readers want their research contextualized, focused, clarified and juicy. I think researching needs to cure or ferment to have the right flavor.

Fermenting research

Research takes time to reveal its meanings. The researched information itself is maybe less important than the meanings and resonances of the information. When it’s in the conscious mind only, it can end up as an info dump. When it’s put into the unconscious mind, the relevance and deeper meaning of it comes out. Then, it can be succinctly delivered. Research mixed with character, feeling and story is meaningful. Research tends to push my mind into rational, cognitive mode, and I push back to get my mind into narrative flow mode.

Mystery novels draw a lot of their power from the tension of competing elements—researched and non-researched. It’s not knowing all the stops on a Tokyo train line, but setting a chase scene there. It’s not the economics of the night-time world of bars and clubs, but how that affects the characters. Research makes mystery novels gripping by mooring the story to reality. If well-done and thoughtfully included, the researched components keep the story humming with a strong pace, a sincere manner, a balance of emotions and a deep feeling for the world.

To find out more about Michael and his new book, The Last Train, check out his website and follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Goodreads. The book is available via Amazon and all major book retailers.

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