Kōtarō Isaka (and his translator Sam Malissa) have created an story that is totally improbable, manic – but quite wonderful. Five killers board the Shikansen (Bullet Train to us) which goes from Tokyo to Morioka. I use the word ‘manic’ because the journey only takes just over two and a half hours, and this is a book of over four hundred pages, so you immediately know we are pretty much operating in real time. The five passengers are:

  • Kimura. He is a drunk, a former gangster, and his six year old son lies in a coma after being pushed from the roof of a department store by –
  • Satoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji, a teenage psychopath.
  • Lemon and Tangerine, two villains who are working for Mr Minegishi, a crime boss. They have rescued his kidnapped son and have retained the intended ransom money, which is packed in a suitcase. Incidentally, Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and its different characters.
  • Nanao, a hapless minor gangster, and a walking example of Murphy’s Law, but still a killer. His job is to relieve Lemon and Tangerine of the suitcase full of cash.

By page fifty, it’s all happening, and it is all about the suitcase full of cash. Satoshi is expecting Kimura, stuns him with a home made taser, and has him trussed up with tape in the seat next to him. Nanao has stolen the suitcase, but is prevented from leaving at the first stop, Ueno, by the arrival of another gangster called Wolf who has a score to settle with Nanao. Wolf barges him back into the train before he can leave, but Nanao kills him in a struggle. Lemon and Tangerine have discovered that the cash is missing, but return to their seats to find Minegishi Junior has, inexplicably, expired.

Two simple graphics add to the fun. The first (left) is a schematic of the stations on the journey itself. Though simple, this is a very clever device, because it allows the author to have the characters – albeit briefly – engage with the world outside the confines of the ten coach train. The second is of the coaches in the train (below) and is used as chapter headings as events play out.
BTSatoshi ‘The Prince’ Oji is the darkest character of the five. He is utterly without compassion. Other human beings – school teachers, teenage friends, other adults – only have value to him in the sense that they can be used for his entertainment. He is highly intelligent, but one of the more malevolent fictional villains I have encountered in recent times. Everything is thought through and planned in the minutest detail, such as his grip on Kamura. The grizzled gangster could, physically, chew up Satoshi and spit out the bones, but the teenager convinces Kamura that he has an insider in the hospital where the man’s son is lying in a coma, and should Satoshi fail to answer periodic calls to his mobile ‘phone, then this insider will find a way to disconnect the little boy’s life support system.

There is a thread of darker-than-dark comedy running through the chapters. Nanao’s attempts to rearrange Wolf’s corpse to make it look as if he was just taking a nap put me in mind of Basil Fawlty in The Kipper and the Corpse, while Lemon’s obsessive knowledge of Percy, Gordon, and James the Red Engine is like something that Flann O’Brien might have dreamt up given that, with Tangerine, Lemon has just left a crime scene where, between them, they have shot dead at least fifteen men. Add to the mix a couple of random cross-dressers, a stolen wig – and an escaped snake – and you have two and a half hours of mayhem. As passengers become corpses, one by one, the unlikely intervention of a pair of grandparents brings matters to a bloody conclusion.

I don’t doubt that other reviewers have used this analogy, but it is still worth saying that Bullet Train is something of a cross between a Tarantino movie and a Manga comic. There is the same implausible detachment from reality found in both, but also the same joyful sense of anarchy. The train itself, hurtling onwards at 200 mph, echoes the sense of high speed forward movement and drive in the narrative. The internet tells me that Hollywood have snapped up the book, and a film is being produced starring Brad Pitt. As whom? – I have genuinely no idea, but this brilliant and daring novel is published in Britain by Harvill Secker, and is available now.