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.

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