Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Long, Long Murder

MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき, born 1960) is a very successful crime and fantasy writer in Japan, and several of her books have been translated into English. The book I've been reading, 長い長い殺人 (nagai nagai satsujin, The Long, Long Murder, 1992), is a crime novel, to some extent a mystery, but one in which suspense is more important than any puzzle element. We have a fairly clear idea who the bad guys are early on. Only parts of the motives and methods are unclear, and whether they will succeed in their plan, or the police in their pursuit of them.

I often end a review with any reservations I have about a book; but that perhaps leaves a more negative aftertaste than it should. So this time I'll try putting them at the beginning. The final revelations of what, why, how and who are not especially well prepared. The solution is one that I accepted grudgingly, and I felt that, if anything, it made the villains less interesting. That said, this is a very interesting and unusual book. It's really a pity that there isn't an English translation.

 What makes the book so unusual is its narrators. There's a different narrator for each chapter, each following a different character involved in the case: policeman, witness, private detective and so on. You're probably thinking that that's not that unusual, you've definitely read books like that. But the narrators here are not the characters themselves, but their wallets. The wallets are allowed to observe and narrate the events that they are present at as though endowed with intelligence and the ability to hear and see (as long as they're not in someone's pocket). It's a very old fashioned conceit, something you'd associate more with eighteenth or nineteenth century fiction. The only examples I can think of are a children's book, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877), and, definitely not a children's book, Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748); but there was evidently a big fashion for this kind of fiction in the eighteenth century. I wouldn't necessarily want to see it become a fashion again, but an experiment like this is very welcome.

The wallets all have slightly different characters. Generally they show some similarities to their owners: their language can be male or female, young or old. They regard their owners with sympathy and concern. They are often a little more cautious and a little more respectful of traditional morality, looking on with helpless dismay at the missteps of their owners. I thought early in the book that there might be a thematic reason for choosing wallets, along the lines of the scene in a George V. Higgins book, where a character explains, whenever you want to know why people did something stupid, the real answer is always "We did it for the money". This might apply to the first chapter, where a debt laden policeman is tempted with a bribe, and a hit and run killing looks like a wife's attempt to kill her husband for the insurance money; but money is not at the heart of the book. The wallets are used in various ways, sometimes merely witnesses, sometimes directly involved in the plot (through the actions of others, of course). If there's a reason why wallets are chosen rather than other inanimate objects (watches, for instance, or socks), it might be that they are just more particularly closely tied to a person's identity.

The plot starts the hit and run death of a man, whose widow seems to have carefully provided herself with an alibi for the night in question. We then switch to various characters who come in contact with the widow, including a boy whose aunt has become engaged to a young businessman. The fiancé easily wins over the rest of the family, but the boy somehow cannot trust him. The distrust seems justified, since on her marriage the aunt is persuaded to take out life insurance for a large sum. The apparent villains seem quite reckless and confident of their ability to get what they want, whatever suspicion may fall on them. By the end of the book there are a large number of victims. This too seems a little old fashioned: characters threatened by a cruel enemy against whom they are quite helpless are something you might expect to find in a nineteenth century sensation novel. The classic puzzle detective story generally has to do without really ruthless evil; and perhaps it is missing something. Certainly the book's suspense is far greater than any puzzle detective story I can remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment