Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Reason

I need a new label for this. Most of the crime fiction I write about here can be categorised as detective stories. My own preference is fairly strongly for the more puzzle oriented books; but I don't expect that everything that I read should have Ellery Queen style formal proof of the culprit. 理由 (riyuu, The Reason, 1998) by MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき), which won the Naoki Prize (one of Japan's major prizes for popular literature), is not really written as a mystery. There are things we don't know at the start of the story that we learn as it goes on; but the narrative does not invite us to try and puzzle too much about what is going on. I've tagged this post as "crime novel". Of course most detective stories are crime novels too; but I'll reserve the label for posts about books which can't be read as mysteries.

I mentioned Miyabe's interesting approach to narration when I wrote about The Long Long Murder (長い長い殺人). The Reason is not so unusual; but it still shows an interest in how to tell a story. The crime that the book describes is the violent death of four people in an apartment high up in a luxury block of flats. It soon becomes clear that the victims are not the owners that the building's administration have on their books; and the police realise that they have no idea who has died or why. The story's narrator presents most of the book as if reporting a now solved actual crime, with the limited viewpoint that that entails. The narrator is not very present in the narrative, but gives a tapestry of second hand accounts of the various witnesses and incidentally involved characters. Occasionally we get a little more involved with a description of an interview with a major character. And then, in contrast to this documentary style, we also get a few chapters which are narrated (as if by an omniscient narrator) from the viewpoint of one or another character. These sections are more conventionally novelistic, though the reader might suppose that they too came from a non fiction writer, choosing to write in a more novelistic way. The documentary style majority of the book also implies a readership slightly different from the real readership. Living in the world in which the crime was a major media event, they presumably know more than we do about what happened. For us the crime is a mystery. Finding out exactly what happened and why is not so much a matter of investigating, as waiting for the narrator to get to that part of the account.

You'll often read descriptions of the history of Japanese detective fiction which implies a sort of war between puzzle detective stories and social detective stories, with MATSUMOTO Seichou driving out the puzzles in the fifties and sixties, until the "new orthodox" detective story brought back the puzzle under the leadership of AYATSUJI Yukito (綾辻 行人) in 1987. I haven't read enough to say this is complete nonsense; but I feel confident that it's fairly misleading. Matsumoto wrote so many books that he almost counts as a school in his own right; but those I've read, while clearly concerned with describing the way the world is now, also have a strong puzzle element. And what was the rest of the "social school"? "Society" is not the central interest of almost any of the other writers from the seventies and eighties that I have read, even if the puzzle was not central either. Traditional themes like the impossible crime have always been popular enough in Japan that it is no surprise when one meets such a trick in almost any crime novel. That said, The Reason lives up to the stereotype of the "social school", as far as a book can.

Towards the beginning, it looks like the theme of the book is going to be "real estate in the post bubble economy". Many of the early chapters and middle chapters are concerned with the dubious finance and not quite legal practices in the buying and selling of property in Japan's depressed economy. Gradually it becomes clear that this is part of a larger focus. As we meet with different groups of people concerned in the case, we realise that the theme is not so much "real estate" as "making a home"; most people who buy a house or flat, do so to raise a family. We meet various families and hear their stories. Some are getting along well , others are just managing to hold together, or breaking apart. And we also see people who have left their families for various reasons.

In the end the book seems to favour a particular view on the way society is going. It does so only through opinions expressed by the characters; but the narrator does not offer a divergent opinion either in their own voice or from another character. It's a view that I look at with some scepticism, as I feel it forgets that the world that young people are growing up in is changed by circumstances over which they had no choices. Some things are possible for them that were not possible for their parents. Other things that were easy for their parents are harder for them (here I am thinking particularly of their financial situation). This is obviously true in Europe. I know that Japan has not changed as much; but I think the same trends are there.

The book is one of the longer ones that I have read, over 670 pages. That would be a little shorter in a typical western paperback format (Japanese paperback pages are small, but densely printed); but it would still be a long book. If that doesn't discourage you, and if your interest in crime fiction goes beyond mysteries or suspense, then it is certainly worth trying. Despite the length, it had no trouble in holding my interest.

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