Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case

And so I end the record of my literary performances,—which I think are more in amount than the works of any other living English author. ... I find that ... I have published much more than twice as much as Carlyle. I have also published considerably more than Voltaire, even including his letters. We are told that Varro, at the age of eighty, had written 480 volumes, and that he went on writing for eight years longer. I wish I knew what was the length of Varro's volumes; I comfort myself by reflecting that the amount of manuscript described as a book in Varro's time was not much. Varro, too, is dead, and Voltaire; whereas I am still living, and may add to the pile. [Anthony Trollope, Autobiography]
 In case the quotation above wasn't enough of a hint, today's book is by the incredibly prolific 西村京太郎 (NISHIMURA Kyoutarou, born 1930). A high production rate is fairly standard for Japanese mystery writers; but Nishimura has written hundreds of books since his first novel in 1964. The Nishimura bibliography on the Japanese Wikipedia lists 557 books authored (up to June 2015) and a few more edited by him. I could devote this blog soley to reviewing his books and I would never catch up in my lifetime. Of course, I don't plan to do that. Including the book I'm discussing today, 八ヶ岳高原殺人事件 (Yatsugatake kougen satsujin jiken, The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case, 1987), I've now read two books by Nishimura; and the quality seems like my memories of his English counterpart, John Creasey, not unforgivably bad, occasionally rising to quite good.

The subgenre that Nishimura is particularly associated with is the travel mystery, which typically features crimes set in some interesting part of Japan, often with an element of alibi breaking, which may involve close inspection of public transport timetables and maps: Nishimura's book covers often feature trains. In The Yatsugatake Highland Murder Case there is no alibi breaking, although the obsessive detail with which Nishimura lists the departures, connections and arrivals of every train a character travels on makes you expect that it must be coming. The other interest of the travel mystery is to satisfy the tourist interest of Japanese readers, who mostly spend there short holidays somewhere in Japan. If you've ever watched Japanese television, you'll know that travel shows are a large part of every evening's entertainment. Here the detective is Nishimura's series detective, Inspector TOTSUGAWA (十津川); but the tourist eye is provided by a travel writer, who grumpily accompanies a young female photographer to a mountain resort in Yamanashi: Yatsugatake of the title is part of a mountain range on the border of Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures.

The tour of the area is interrupted when the two journalists find a dead body in the woods, a famous television actress who had been staying at the same hotel as them. She has been strangled with a black silk ribbon, the same method used to kill two other young and beautiful women in Tokyo. Totsugawa had been investigating these cases and travels to Yamanashi to see if this is part of the series. The ribbon is the same; and a few days later another case occurs, just a few miles away in Nagano prefecture, again discovered by the travel writer and photographer. Can this be coincidence? Unfortunately when we get to the end, we find that quite a few things in the book actually are coincidence. Although the police make deductions or conjectures on the little evidence they have, there is enough that doesn't make sense or is never developed that you might suspect that Nishimura had not worked the exact plot out in much detail when he started.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Hunter

NONAMI Asa's 凍える牙 (kogoeru kiba, Freezing Fang, 1996) is the first in a series of books featuring the policewoman OTOMICHI Takako (音道貴子) and one of her most successful works. It won the Naoki Prize and was adapted twice into a television series (in 2001 and 2010) and more recently into a Korean film, Howling (2012). It is also one of the few Japanese crime novels with an English translation, as The Hunter by Juliet Winters Carpenter (2006).

Japan probably has the world's highest proportion of fictional female police detectives to real ones. The majority of Japanese policewomen are in the traffic division, which is where the main character here also started, before transferring first to a motorcycle squad (used primarily for publicity purposes) and then finally to criminal investigation. In this mystery she is the only woman in the large investigating team, and is often made uncomfortably aware that she is an unwelcome presence for some of her colleagues. Worst of all, she is teamed up with one of the most prejudiced, the grumpy middle aged TAKIZAWA (滝沢), who spends the first days of the investigation ignoring her as far as possible. Gradually over the course of the case, he begins to understand her a little better.

The police procedural aspect of the story probably sounds very familiar. Mismatched partners gradually learning to work together and female police officers coping with prejudice have both been a staple of western television drama since at least the eighties. Mixing rather oddly with this generically familiar character arrangement and the realistic depiction of a police department, the crimes they investigate are fantastic and bizarre. The first victim is killed with an incendiary bomb attached to his belt, which explodes while he is eating in a Tokyo "family restaurant", burning him alive and destroying the restaurant and several storeys in the same building. Another victim is killed by a dog; and the bite marks on his killer are the same as a bite on the leg of the first victim. Apparently someone has trained a wolf-husky hybrid to kill.

The content of the crimes is not only stylistically jarring in its mismatch with the realism of the police investigation, it is also unconvincingly plotted. Even granting the unusual elements there is too much coincidence and too many aspects that don't really make sense. In this it is a little like MATSUMOTO Seichou's strangely successful 砂の器 (suna no utsuwa, 1974, translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 2003), though Nonami's book is at least a little more solidly plotted than that.

The strength of the book lies not in the mystery, but in the depiction of the characters. Although a description of Otomichi and Takizawa sounds hackneyed, on the page they come across as convincingly and interestingly human. The narration switches between their viewpoints and that of witnesses or victims of the unfolding series of crimes.