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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Master Key

Togawa Masako

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To purchase The Master Key

Title: The Master Key
Author: Togawa Masako
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 1984)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Master Key - US
The Master Key - UK
The Master Key - Canada
Der Hauptschlüssel - Deutschland
Appartamenti per signore sole - Italia
La llave maestra - España
  • Japanese title: 大いなる幻影
  • Translated by Simon Grove

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Our Assessment:

B : atmospheric but sometimes frustrating presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A+ 27/10/1985 Nick B. Williams Sr.
The NY Times . 16/8/1985 John Gross
The Times A 25/10/1984 Marcel Berlins

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)s fascinating a weird yarn of mystery as you'll find -- well, anywhere, even in L.A. (...) (O)ne word sums it up -- superb !" - Nick B. Williams Sr., The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Master Key is a novelty, and something more than a novelty. (...) In a less unfamiliar setting, the melodramatic aspects of the story might stand out more sharply, but as a study of gnarled, often damaged characters it rings firm and true." - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "Extraordinarily atmospheric Japanese thriller (.....) Miss Togawa writes with economy, subtlety and an astonishing feel for time, mood, and the eccentricities of loneliness. An eerie gem." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       There are many things in The Master Key which aren't quite what they seem to be, beginning with the red-scarfed figure in the Prologue, set in 1951, that gets flattened by a van and dies before reaching the hospital. That Togawa wants to shift the ground beneath reader's expectations is made obvious by the scenario she has devised to trigger the main action in the novel: the story revolves around 'The K Apartments for Ladies', a 150-unit, five-story building, and its residents, and things are set in motion by an urban redevelopment plan that involves moving the entire building -- by all of four meters. Meticulously planned, they promise the actual physical shifting of the structure will be so gentle that the residents can stay inside and they won't even notice; in fact, of course, the plans for the move already shake things up a great deal.
       The apartments in the complex are "connected by dark corridors into which the sunshine never penetrates", but events now bring a lot to light. But first there's a great deal of shadowy and shady behavior.
       The first chapter also returns to events from 1951 -- some seven years before the structure is to be moved -- and is titled: 'Three Hints'. Readers might bear this in mind: the three sub-chapters reveal significant information -- but also do so, in part, only suggestively ..... What is revealed: three days before the van-accident mentioned in the Prologue a man and woman buried the body of a small child in the basement of the K Apartments -- witnessed, unbeknownst to them, by a third party. Also revealed, from the guest book records of the time, is that one of the tenants in the complex had a female visitor staying with her. And finally: there was a kidnapping, of a four-year-old-boy, the son of an American Major and his Japanese wife, around that time -- a kidnapping that was never solved.
       The pieces seem to fit together fairly neatly, with Togawa just laying the groundwork for the resolution of this crime -- a kidnapping gone wrong ? --, teasing readers by withholding some names -- the trio in the basement all remain unnamed here -- while clearly spelling out others, for example. But if this first chapter is not exactly all misdirect, Togawa certainly has a great deal more up her sleeve: there are a lot of secrets buried at the K Apartments, and the announced (mini-)move of the building sets into motion the laying-bare of several of these.
       The master key of the title is one that hangs by reception (during the day; it's locked away at night) and is the one key that can gain access to all the apartments. It's quite the symbol:

These apartments were founded with the intention of preserving the modesty and so enhancing the status of working women. That one little key was the guarantor of those aims, but in the wrong hands it becomes a threat. In such circumstances, locked doors lose their meaning.
       Several months before the move, the key is stolen; in fact, over the next few months, several people get their hands on it, and use it for a variety of purposes. If not exactly making the lives of the residents an open book, it does threaten to reveal more than many would like known.
       The residents of the K Apartments are a fairly sad and lonely lot -- retired and disappointed women, set in their isolated ways and individual routines, generally unable to reach out to one another. Already in the Prologue there's mention of the resident who knew the traffic-accident victim; she isn't named, but: "She waited, alone, for seven years. She is still waiting." And the same seems to apply to many of the other residents: one clings to a valuable violin she stole from her teacher, another has become such a hoarder that there's barely any room left in her room. One retired teacher's hobby is writing letters to her former students, sending one every day to a different student (who often are not thrilled by these blasts from the past). Another tries to cling to her husband's legacy, copying out his final manuscript: "From the time I married him, I spent my time rewriting his manuscripts. That was why we had no children" -- but now she can't let go, disappointing those from the university long eager to publish the manuscript as she keeps telling them she's not quite done with it yet (for good reason, as it turns out).
       The Master Key is a study in disappointed women's lives, each obsessing in a different way -- and largely unable to reach out to help themselves (or others). Even the resolution of the kidnapping-case fits this pattern, the child's mother not a resident of the apartment-complex and yet pulled into this sphere; tellingly, Togawa has her stay over at one point, making her at least temporarily a resident.
       As some residents discover others' secrets -- or think they do (The Master Key is chock full of misinterpretation and misunderstanding) -- there is considerable suspense and even action. Some things go wrong shockingly fast and very bad things happen; there is more violent injury and death. The move of the building -- with the expected discovery of the long-buried child's body, to which the story seemed to have been building -- shifts the entire story (four meters ...) -- revealing the final pieces and yet also revealing a completely different explanation for much that had happened previously. The (strange concept of the) move of the building proves to be the perfect metaphor for this story, after all.
       Togawa perhaps doesn't lay enough groundwork for some aspects of the novel -- the building-move is (structurally) hard to imagine (and the fact that they go to all this trouble for a mere four-meter move is strange too ...); it's hard to believe the original owner wouldn't have made more fuss about a Guarnerius violin; and what happens leading to disappearance of the young boy who went missing is hard to believe, even set in a time and culture of not complete helicopter-parenting -- and twists her story back and forth a bit much between the different residents' stories, all in a bit of a rush. This is a story that could easily have been padded to several times its length -- and might have gained something with some of that padding. Crammed full of good ideas, The Master Key tackles a bit much. Still it's an effectively told and evocative tale, that nicely captures a variety of intersecting slices of lonely lives.
       A bit messy as a mystery -- relying on what amounts to characters' confessions to ultimately explain exactly what took place and happened -- it's nevertheless quite satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2016

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The Master Key: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Togawa Masako (戸川昌子) was born in 1933.

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