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Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

In a time when crime-fiction has descended into the world of psychological who-dun-its thrillers, and concentrate more on the why?, rather than the who in whodunnits, Bullet Train takes a rather peculiar, and outright different approach, locking five different personalities (all with the same background) within a confined space, and literally hurtling them towards a destination which not everyone will live to see. Who will make it out alive? What dangers lie in wait in every nook and cranny? Let’s find out.

Commendably Bullet Train doesn’t solely home-in one titular or particular character, rather, the narrative continually intertwines the main characters in a twist-and-turn, various perspective point-of-view, turn of events, narrative, where no-one realises the significance of a particular event or person who just walked by until much later on. It’s interesting that some chapters will play out the exact same events but from a different direction and outlook, making the whole conspiracy mystery descend into a deadly game of musical carriages as the epicentre of the mystery shifts from end of the titular bullet train to another (and back again) within the confines of a relatively short journey. The entire journey is almost voyeuristic as we as readers act like silent passengers watching the entire conspiracy unravel one layer at a time, but remaining powerless to apply the brakes and bring the entire plot to an emergency-stop and lend a helping hand.

Whilst the first three-quarters of the book are excellently paced, developing the main well-rounded, complex characters (without giving too much away), the last quarter does run out of a little bit of steam, and feels likes one giant crawl to pass the finish line; but again the first three-quarters promises readers what it sets out to deliver, a bullet-speed train ride with twists and turns around every mile, and enough characters double-double crossing/back stabbing each other to keep the final outcome all the more (un)predictable.

Whilst Kotaro Isaka does have a nack of using the element of surprise, there are predictable moments towards the end. Whilst not a wrongdoing on Isaka’s behalf, drawing attention to a particular person or plot element every ‘so many pages’ only succeeds in drawing all seeing eyes towards just such, rather than concentrating on the surroundings both inside and outside which go whizzing past, and disappear before anyone can comprehend what just happened. As such the whole running back and forth, up and down, sideways and back does become repetitive, but it is good repetitiveness, it ups the stakes and foreboding certain characters live through, since both the inside and outside world(s) could strike anyone down as their next victim; and emphasises that there is no escaping the inanimate carrier of death (the bullet train) which could very well carry certain characters literally to their ultimate demise.

Hurtling alongside the bullet speed train journey are a flew loose endings, which don’t really reinforce the pursuit of justice that one would hope for: readers are left on the cliff edge, or perhaps the tip of the train with no solid platform to cling onto for safety and comfort. For the survivors it’s just feels like one day at the office; turn up for work, do your job, people will die, nothing can be done, home in time for dinner. Underneath this is a bold move by Isaka to kill certain characters off (a lot of characters), perhaps a little too early in the day, and perhaps really emphasising that crime doesn’t infact pay, and trending on such paths does have its negative consequences.

Despite not being fully moulded together, Bullet Train is one fascinating ride from departure to arrival, so buy your ticket, hope on board, take a seat, (try) to relax, and prepare as you take a journey down memory lane for a crime novel which pushes boundaries, and isn’t afraid to take risks and try out something new.

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