A crime novel, a TV series, and a tasty WIT Month list…
Seicho Matsumoto, A Quiet Place (trans. from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai; Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 
First line: Tsuneo Asai was on a business trip to the Kansai region when he heard the news.
Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) was a ground-breaking Japanese crime writer: his obituary in the Independent says that ‘he pushed the art of the detective story in Japan to new dimensions, depicting Japanese society with unprecedented realism’. I thoroughly enjoyed his 1961 novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates, so it was a pleasure to return to his work with A Quiet Place, first published in Japan in 1975.
Tsuneo Asai is a respected government official working for the Ministry of Agriculture. While on a business trip to Kobe, he is informed that his wife Eiko has died of a heart attack. While in some ways this is not a surprise, as she had a heart condition, the location of her death is: a small shop in a Tokyo neighbourhood Eiko had no reason to frequent. We see a perplexed Asai take on the role of detective, trying to piece together the circumstances of his wife’s demise, until the narrative eventually takes a darker turn.
Gripping in spite of its leisurely pace, this existential crime novel provides intriguing insights into Japanese society at the time, such as the strong influence of giri – duty or social obligation (for more on this, see Harry Martin’s review for the Japan Society of the UK). The novel’s style also feels extremely fresh, thanks no doubt to Louise Heal Kawai’s excellent translation. A very satisfying read.
It’s been ages since I really got stuck into some TV crime drama, and I’ve become a bit daunted at all the riches on offer – there’s SO MUCH GOOD STUFF ON! But last week, I made a start on the second series of Top of the Lake: China Girl. I loved the opening series, directed by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss (review here), and the second very much picks up the themes and concerns of the first: misogyny and the exploitation of women on the one hand, and the complex figure of Detective Robin Griffin on the other, who is brilliant at her job but struggling emotionally.
The action has moved from New Zealand to Sydney in Australia, where Robin re-joins her old police unit and begins to connect with Mary, the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 16. At the same time, Robin begins investigating the murder of a woman whose body is found in a suitcase washed up on Bondi beach. As ever, this is a hard-hitting, at times very bleak crime drama, with brilliant characterisation, acting and some stunning cinematography. One extra bonus is the presence of Nicole Kidman, who plays Mary’s adoptive mother – she apparently asked to be given a part after seeing the first series.
As you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation Month’. The idea of this project is to shine a spotlight on all the wonderful literature by women that’s available in translation, and to encourage English-language publishers to translate lots more (numbers show that far fewer female authors are currently translated than male authors). Other initiatives such as the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will hopefully help as well.
You can read more about WIT month at https://womenintranslation.com/. Twitter hashtags: #Ireadwomenintranslation and #WITmonth.
Here are just a few fab crime novels by women in translation:
- Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (trans. from Greek by Yiannis Panas, Black & White Publishing, 2013)
- Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (trans. from German by John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press, 2007)
- Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt; Manilla 2017)
- Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston; Orenda Books, 2016)
- Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State (trans. from French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson; EuroCrime 2009).
- Ingrid Noll, The Pharmacist (trans. from German by Ian Mitchell, Harper Collins, 1999)
- Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (trans. from Spanish by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016)
- Melanie Raabe, The Trap (trans. from German by Imogen Taylor; Mantle, 2016)
- Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (trans. from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger; Orenda Books, 2016)
- Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian (trans. from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins, 2015)
- Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm (trans from German by Anthea Bell; Quercus, 2008).
- Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, Why Did You Lie? (trans. from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
- Maj Sjöwall (and Per Wahlöö), The Laughing Policeman (trans. from Swedish by Alan Blair; Harper Perennial, 2007
- Fred Vargas, Have Mercy on us All (trans. from French by David Bellos, Vintage, 2004)
If you have any favourites you’d like to add to this list, just let me know!
I’m not entirely won over by Top of the Lake series 2, to be honest, despite the wonderful acting. But I will probably continue watching. Great recommendations all round, though!
Interesting to hear. I think I’ll need to get a little further in, but am then up for a chat! (I remember that Series 1 had some imperfections, but that I found myself getting pulled along by the positives to the extent that it didn’t matter.)
I watched the whole of Seres 2 at the cinema today – at a quite brilliant cinema too – in Melbourne, Australia. My advice: do not give up. It absolutely delivers, but Campion and co-writer’s view is a very wide arc – you need to persevere 🙂
Wow! That must have been quite some viewing experience! Thanks for the encouragement – will definitely persevere.
Watched the whole series of China girl on Iplayer. Hang on in there ladies, youre in for a bumpy ride!!👍👍
Thank you…I think!
Glad to see you enjoyed the Matsumoto as well as you did, Mrs. P. I think his work’s very good. And ‘existentialist’ is an apt way to describe it. Top of the Lake is a well-done series, too. I think Robin is a well-drawn, complex character. And thanks for those suggestions for Women in Translation month – lots of great ideas!
You’re welcome, Margot. One thing that impressed me in particular about the Matsumoto was its freshness. It reads like it’s all happening in the present day (I only realised at quite a late stage that it had been written in the 1970s).
Great post and I love the idea of focusing on women translated literature. Thank you thank you for the list get us started. Have you read these or do you have any favorites?
Top of the Lake doesn’t broadcast in the US until later this fall on the Sundance channel if I remember right. Can’t wait. I loved the first season. Hoping Netflix will get it again. The Seicho Matsumoto novel sounds good. I’ll add that one to my list.
Thanks, Keishon! Yes, I’ve read all of the novels on the list and have discussed most of them on the blog as well. If you type the author name/title into the blog’s search box, something should pop up in most cases. Hope you find something you like!
Looking forward to watching the rest of Top of the Lake. I hadn’t realised we were ahead of you on the his one (often the other way around). Will keep fingers crossed that it makes its way to Netflix.
Glad you like the sound of the Matsumoto – I found it a really interesting, oddly mesmerising read…
I found the first episode of Top of the Lake so bleak I just wondered if I had the stomach for it … but then after all those episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale I think I just need to watch something incredibly cheerful! I love Manotti she’s one of my favourites such an unusual writer.
I know exactly what you mean, Victoria – especially as Elisabeth Moss is the lead in both series (must have had quite a toll on her as well).
I love Manotti too. She’s rather underrated in the English-speaking world. I saw her once on a panel at CrimeFest and she was inspiring.
Long live Matsumoto! Thinking of publishing another one. Watch this place.
Please, please do! So happy that you published this one and would love to read more!
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