Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Zero Focus

MATSUMOTO Seichou ( 松本清張, 1909-1992) was one of the leading writers of detective fiction in post war Japan. He's probably also one of the better known Japanese crime writers in the west. Three of his novels (along with a collection of short stories) have been translated into English: 点と線 (Ten to sen, 1958, translated as Points and Lines, 1986); 砂の器 (Suna no utsuwa, 1961, translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 2003); 霧の旗 (Kiri no hata, translated as Pro Bono, 2012). I've read 点と線 and 砂の器. Both are classic examples of the "tenacious policeman" style of investigation. The first, a corruption and murder investigation that develops into an exercise in alibi breaking, is quite good. The second is a bit of a mess, I think. It was made into a famous film (known in English as Castle of Sand); but I gather that the film diverges from the book's ramshackle plot in positive ways.

ゼロの焦点  (Zero no Shouten, 1959) is one of Matsumoto's best known works in Japan. There are two film versions, which seem to be known as Zero Focus in English (1961 and 2009) and several television dramatisations. It's a pity that it hasn't been translated into English. I think it's actually better than Points and Lines or Inspector Imanishi Investigates.

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the difficulties of reading Japanese books is the need to note the reading of the kanji for a character's name when they first appear, as the readings are not always obvious and you won't necessarily get another chance. So, as I often do, I made a list of character names as I went through for my own use. Since the Japanese Wikipedia page on the book doesn't give the readings, I'll add them here in case anyone can use them.

Name Reading Description
板根禎子 ITANE Teiko (maiden name)
鵜原憲一 UHARA Kenichi her new husband, advertising executive
佐伯 SAEKI recommended the marriage
本多良雄 HONDA Yoshio Kenichi's successor in Kanazawa
横田英夫 YOKOTA Hideo section chief in Kenichi's company
青木 AOKI colleague of Yokota
室田儀作 MUROTA Gisaku chairman of a Kanazawa brick company
室田佐智子 MUROTA Sachiko his wife
鵜原宗太郎 UHARA Soutarou Kenichi's older brother
葉山 HAYAMA Kenichi's former police colleague
田沼久子 TANUMA Hisako receptionist in MUROTA's firm
曾根益三郎 SONE Masusaburou her common law husband
木村 KIMURA representative of Kenichi's advertising company

(These are all the named main characters - and some fairly minor ones. Two more important characters are never named in the book, Teiko's mother, who is always 'mother', and Uhara Soutarou's wife, who is always 'older sister'.)

The main investigator in the story is this time not a policeman, but the newly married Teiko, whose husband by an arranged marriage, Uhara Kenichi, disappears only a few weeks after the honeymoon. Kenichi had been winding up his work in the Kanazawa branch of his firm before his transfer to the main office in Tokyo; but he never returns. As it becomes clear that something is wrong, Teiko heads out to Kanazawa to talk to the police. But Kenichi's disappearance is only the first of a series of murders or apparent suicides.

Since it was an arranged marriage and she had spent little time with him, Teiko hardly knew her husband. In addition, beyond natural reserve, he seems to have had certain secrets that he had not shared with Teiko. So the story is partly an exploration of her missing husband's life. This leads in one direction to his earlier life as a policeman in occupied Japan in the desperate years immediately after the second world war, in another to the connexions he had in Kanazawa. The setting of most of the story is Kanazawa and the nearby Noto Peninsula in midwinter. This part of Japan gets much more snow than Tokyo (Kawabata's Snow Country is set in a different part of the same region); and the bitter wintry landscape is part of the story. The Noto Peninsula, particulary its west coast, is depicted as bleak and precipitous, hard to reach by public transport, sparsely populated, with poor and isolated villages.

As a mystery, it's simply a very well made story. The early parts set up a variety of puzzles that at first have Teiko and us mystified or speculating wildly. Gradually, discoveries and deductions make the larger picture somewhat clearer. In the end the picture comes into focus and we see who the murderer is and how they did it. Since the cast is not that large, I spotted the murderer and the motive long before the final chapter, as most readers will; but I missed the main trick to the story, which makes sense of so much and is so obvious once one reads it.

I only have two minor reservations about the book. It takes a bit more room than the story needs. It's not as long as 砂の器, but at 470 pages bunko format, it's a long book. (I'm not sure what that would be in a typical western paperback; I'd guess a little over 300 pages, depending on print size). Like many famous Japanese detective stories, it was first published as a serial. This probably necessitates a certain degree of repetition and consolidation of established knowledge. Secondly, there are no really attractive characters. The book is not full of especially dislikable characters either. But, it was odd to read a book written mostly from Teiko's perspective and still end feeling that I hardly knew her. Like her husband she comes across as a very guarded character.

Really though, this is the best book by Matsumoto that I've read, and it makes me keen to read more.

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