The dutiful policeman: Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. Beth Cary (Japan)

Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. from the Japanese by Beth Cary, Soho Press, 2003 [1961].

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.

#13 Shuichi Yoshida / Villain

Shuichi Yoshida, Villain, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (London: Vintage 2011 [2007]). A gripping dissection of a murder and its repercussions  5 stars

Opening sentence: Route 263 runs north and south some forty-eight kilometres, connecting Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures and straddling Mitsuse Pass in the Sefuri mountain range.

Shuichi Yoshida, author of the 2007 novel Villain, opts not to foreground the activities of the police or the private detective when tracing the story of a crime. Instead, ordinary individuals, who’ve unexpectedly found their lives shaken by the murder of a young woman, are placed centre stage, while the police investigation  progresses quietly behind the scenes. This creates a crime novel with an impressive difference, showing us how the ripples from a murder move outwards and impact on a variety of people. As well as dissecting the effect that the crime has on the victim’s and murderer’s families, and on friends and workmates, the novel provides us with in-depth portraits of Yoshino Ishibashi and her killer, and a complex analysis of the circumstances leading to the murder on the desolate mountain road of Mituse Pass.

The identity of the murderer is only confirmed towards the end of the text, and readers are invited to reflect on the extent to which he is indeed a ‘villain’, or whether the contributory actions of others, and the social circumstances in which he was raised should also be viewed as ‘villainous’. The narrative’s sympathies never tip over into an apology for the murderer’s actions, but there is an attempt to move away from a knee-jerk characterisation of the murderer as monster, to a more nuanced understanding of his crime.

One aspect of the novel I particularly liked was the almost complete absence of melodrama. The writing style is spare and matter-of-fact, homing in on ordinary details, such as a grandmother eating a pickled plum, or a shop-assistant reflecting on the difference between expensive designer shirts and the ones she has to sell. The emphasis on everyday experiences that readers will recognise (whether they are Japanese or not), brings this story closer to real life than is often the case, and makes it all the more unsettling: this is a recognisable world populated by recognisable individuals.

That having been said, the story is also very much of its time and place – contemporary Japan – and paints a largely unflattering picture of Japanese society, especially in relation to the issue of class. There are a lot of unhappy people in this book, and a sense of individual entrapment comes over very strongly in the depiction of a number of characters.

Villain has won the prestigious Japanese Osaragi Jiro Prize. The film adaptation, directed by Lee Sang-Il, appeared in 2010 and received mixed reviews.

One last observation: the back cover of the novel contains the by now almost inevitable, lazy comparison to Stieg Larsson, in the shape of a quote from a New Yorker review.

For the record, aside from the fact that it’s a crime novel and contains some social critique, Villain bears no obvious resemblance to Stieg Larsson’s works. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, but simply as a statement of fact. Villain is the in-depth study of one crime, while the Millennium Trilogy explores a number of crimes; Villain examines the lives of individuals dealing with the immediate aftermath of a murder, with the police operating in the background, while the Millennium Trilogy explores the long-term effect of past crimes and foregrounds the investigative activities of Blomkvist and Salander; Villain’s dominant themes are class and patterns of cause and effect, Millennium’s are misogyny and power. And stylistically, the novels are as different as can be.

Mrs. Peabody awards Villain an impressive 5 stars.