Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. from the Japanese by Beth Cary, Soho Press, 2003 .
Opening: The first train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line was scheduled to leave Kamata Station at 4:08 A.M.
First published in 1961, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is often viewed as a police procedural. But although it begins with a police investigation into the murder of a man found beneath a train, it soon turns into the story of Inspector Imanishi’s own quest to solve the case (as the title helpfully suggests). When the investigation is wound down due to lack of evidence, Inspector Imanishi simply refuses to give up: he painstakingly gathers clues until the full picture of the victim’s story, and that of his murderer, emerges.
One big difference between Japanese and Western police cultures becomes apparent in the process. Imanishi’s solo sleuthing isn’t viewed as a flouting of orders by his superiors, but rather as a laudable attempt to honour the victim and do a good job as a policeman, even if that means using his own time and resources. And when he uncovers vital clues, he reports back to his superiors as a matter of course, and the two continue working harmoniously together. The Western maverick police detective (think Serpico or Sarah Lund), in conflict with his/her superiors and the system, is conspicuously absent.
The pace of the investigation is leisurely with a number of dead ends. Like other police procedurals of the time, such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Beck’ series (1965-75), the novel conveys the often tortuously slow progress of police work, and the grit and determination required to solve a case. Some readers might find the pace a little slow, but there’s plenty to sustain interest: clues that involve regional dialects, theories of linguistic migration, bus timetables and postcards, as well as one of the most inventive murder weapons that’s ever appeared in a crime novel.
Along the way, there’s also intriguing detail about everyday Japanese life, customs, culture and food (circa 1961, at least). The conversations between individuals are always impeccably courteous, measured and polite – even between the police and the criminals they’re arresting.
The only aspect of the novel that grated was the uniformly subservient characterisation of women. I’d be interested to know if this portrayal stemmed from the author’s own attitudes or was simply a reflection of women’s social status and role in Japanese society at the time. If the latter, then I sincerely hope things have moved along in the sixty years since then.
Two other little tidbits: in 1974, the novel was turned into a film, Suna no Utsuwa, directed by Yoshitaro Nomura, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The novel’s original title was also Suna no Utsuwa, meaning Castle of Sand.