Mark Twain famously said “truth is stranger than fiction” – but not many people are familiar with the full quote, which continues: “but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”

On Dec 30, 2000, the Miyazawa family were murdered in their home in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward – father Mikio, 44, mother Yasuko, 41, daughter Niina, eight, and son Rei, six.

The killer stayed on in the house for hours after the murders, spending some of his time eating ice cream and using the computer, before leaving near dawn the next morning. Despite the numerous clues uncovered and 246,044 police investigators deployed on the case since 2000 – there are still 40 officers currently assigned to the case – the murderer remains unidentified.

An old newspaper article about this case caught author Nicolas Obregon’s eye during his first trip to Japan in 2010 and is the basis of his debut novel, Blue Light Yokohama.

This crime story revolves around Inspector Kosuke Iwata, a troubled police officer who has just been transferred to the homicide division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s headquarters in Shinjuku. With the division’s efforts focused on famous actress Mina Fong’s murder, Iwata and fellow new transfer Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai are dumped with the strange murder of the Kaneshiro family.

Blue Light Yokohama Obregon takes the known elements of the Miyazawa murder and spices them up with elements of racism and ritualistic murder.

The Korean Kaneshiro family – consisting of father Tsunemasa, mother Takako, son Seiji and daughter Hana – are not only brutally stabbed and slashed, but Tsunemasa’s heart is also removed and his body left lying in the master bedroom under the drawing of a huge black sun.

Obregon interweaves the murder investigation with reveals of protagonist Iwata’s troubled background throughout the book.

Aside from being abandoned by his mother at the age of 10 and growing up in an orphanage, Iwata’s American wife Cleo lives in a medical institution and appears to be uncommunicative. The reason for this still haunts him, as do memories of his good friend from the orphanage, Kei.

While these reveals allow readers to get to know Iwata better, they don’t really serve the mystery aspect of the story.

The investigation of the murders is fairly absorbing and well-paced, with Obregon dropping various clues along the way for readers to make their own deductions.

However, the setting, which is placed mostly in Japan with a brief foray into Hong Kong, failed to be convincing enough for me to be fully absorbed into the story.

Obregon describes himself as having been fascinated by Japan from the age of six through anime and video games. According to the author’s note at the back of the book, he has also visited Japan at least twice and read extensively on the country.

Was that enough for him to write an entire book set there?

Not for me.

His characters do not feel Japanese; you could just change their names to English ones and drop them into a Western setting, without changing anything else – including their dialogue – and it wouldn’t feel jarring at all.

This, more than anything else, kept jolting me out of the book’s world.

He is also inconsistent at times with the characters’ names, switching from last name to first without warning.

Oh, and the title?

You’ll see lines related to it scattered at frequent, and sometimes rather random, intervals throughout the text – another thing that rather annoyed me.

Overall, Obregon’s writing style is not bad, but his inexperience shows – less really is more at times – and perhaps he should stick to settings and characters that he is more intimately familiar with for now.

Blue Light Yokohama

Author: Nicolas Obregon
Publisher: Michael Joseph/Penguin, crime thriller