Mysteries From the Mysterious East

Although Japanese mystery novels have not chipped their way into the collective Western consciousness, it is neither for lack of trying nor dearth of product. I have reviewed several of the contemporary crop of writers for BookPage over the past couple of years: Miyuki Miyabe, Asa Nonami, Natsuo Kirino, to name but a few. They are only the tip of the ice berg, in fact only the tip of the ice berg of Japanese mystery novelists whose work I have read: Shizuko Natsuki, Ryu Murakami, Seicho Matsumoto, Arimasa Osawa, and Akamitsu Takagi, to name but a few more. Sometimes my first experience with a writer is his / her second or third book and it has spurred me to go back and read previous work; such was the case with Natsuo Kirino, whose Real World I reviewed last summer:

“Tokyo is said to be the safest city in the world, although if the events in Natsuo Kirino’s chilling Real World are any indication, the safety may be something of an illusion, a thin gauze veil over a maelstrom. Four teenage girls are the protagonists, although some are definitely more pro- than others: Toshi, the steady one, who hears the loud noise next door, unaware that a murder has just taken place; Kirarin, the sweet and lovable one who is a bundle of contradictions just below the surface; Yuzan, the one who has not quite come out of the closet, although her friends are all aware of her sexual leanings; and Terauchi, the hyper-philosophical one who struggles with loneliness and betrayal. All of them have a peculiar bond with a geeky high school kid nicknamed Worm, and each of them will have a fateful interaction with him: two will die, and two will find the courses of their lives irreparably altered. Real World is not about central-casting Japanese girls who shyly cover their mouths when they smile, but rather about thoroughly serious contemporary young women faced with a crisis well beyond their limited abilities to cope with it.”

I had received a copy of Kirino’s previous book, Out, but had not had the chance either to read or review it; still, it looked interesting enough that I put it into my night stand bookcase for a future read. (It should be noted here that the logistics of book reviewing are sometimes a bit overwhelming, albeit in a good way. Each month I have to review four books, sometimes more, which means reading at least six or eight in order to be able to choose the best four to review. I try to mix it up a bit, male / female, younger / older, new authors / old favorites, domestic / foreign, and so on.) Inevitably some great books slip through the cracks. Nastuo Kirino’s Out was one of those, as I discovered on the airplane to Japan last time around.

If I had reviewed Out, it would have looked something like this: “Natsuo Kirino’s debut into the American literature market is the the wildly inventive Out, a macabre tale of a quartet of night shift working women who inadvertently become for-hire corpse grinders. Got your attention? I thought so. It starts innocently enough, when Yayoi Yamamoto murders her husband. Don’t shed any tears for this loser, though; he was a world-class abuser, and richly deserved his fate. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I guarantee you will empathize with Yayoi. Yayoi seeks help from workmate Masako Katori, the clear thinker of the four, in disposing of the body, and she in turn recruits the group’s senior member, Yoshie Azuma. The final member, Kuniko Jonouchi, slips into the mix by accident, showing up at the very inopportune moment when the other three are hacking away at the remainder of Yayoi’s dear departed husband Kenji. Conveniently, somebody else is tapped by the police as the prime suspect, and the four think they are in the clear. No such luck, however, for someone knows their secret, and he sets about using it to blackmail them. Not ordinary blackmail, though; he doesn’t want money…he wants some bodies disposed of, and who better for the job than someone(s) with experience in the field? Read Out…to find out.”

Kirino was by no means my first encounter with Japanese mystery fiction, though. In fact, I am not quite sure who was, although there is a good chance it was Miyuki Miyabe, the reigning doyenne of Japanese genre fiction. Here is my BookPage review of her sorta-supernatural thriller, Crossfire:

“Tokyo police detective Chikako Ishizu, protagonist of Miyuki Miyabe’s best-selling Shadow Family, returns for an encore performance in Crossfire, this time forced to re-evaluate her skeptical position on paranormal behavior. It seems that Junko Aoki, a pretty young Japanese woman, has a strange talent: she can start fires simply by exerting intense concentration. It is a gift she uses to exact vigilante justice in cases where the conventional legal system failed. Both Ishizu and Aoki seek justice for criminals, but their methods are distinctly at odds with one another, as are their usual outcomes. As the bodies begin to pile up, the police are not the only ones to take notice: a growing vigilante group in Tokyo would dearly love to add Aoki’s talents to their arsenal. Best described as a mystery-meets-supernatural novel, but definitely leaning more toward the mystery side, Crossfire will be a big hit with fans of Stephen King and John Connolly alike.”

I have a special place in my heart for Japanese author Asa Nonami; her book The Hunter was the first novel I read and reviewed upon touching down in Tokyo a few years back:
“As this is my first column written from within the confines of my tiny Tokyo apartment, it seems especially fitting to lead off with a review of a Japanese author. Asa Nonami makes her first foray into English-language mysteries with The Hunter, translated by the talented Julia Winters Carpenter, who impressed readers (including this one) with her English rendering of Miyuki Miyabe’s 2004 thriller, Shadow Family. Originally released in Japan in 1996, where it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, The Hunter stands poised to take aim at Western markets this month. The heroine, beleaguered police detective Takako Otomichi, is as complex and conflicted a protagonist as any in recent memory. The product of an affirmative-action type program to bring more females into positions of power in the workplace, Otomichi is by turns coddled, patronized and outright dissed by her co-workers. On top of that, she is recently divorced, her sister is semi-suicidal, her mother is a harpy and her new partner is a misogynist of the first order. Otomichi’s latest assignment finds her hot on the trail of a murderous canine, possibly a cross between a large dog and a wolf. Surprisingly, there is a society, albeit a loosely knit and somewhat clandestine one, that promotes the breeding of these clever and ferocious animals; to Otomichi’s dismay, the key figures all seem to be cops. And what’s a girl to do when the cops all stick together to keep a female officer out of the loop? The answer, of course, is to stay one step ahead, to beat the bullies at their own game, a task that Otomichi is well up to. The Hunter is a first-rate page-turner, sure to have readers queuing up for a sequel.”

The crime rate is quite low in Japan; indeed, it is among the lowest in the world, particularly where violent crimes are concerned, but you would never know it from the diabolical plotting and scheming of the fine suspense writers from the Land of the Rising Sun.

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One Response to Mysteries From the Mysterious East

  1. Tim Hallinan says:

    I love these books — Miyabe and (especially) Kirino are on my “automatic-buy” list. Have you read “Brave Story,” Miyabe’s 900-page (or something like that) “Harry Potter” take? It’s actually pretty good, if you’re interested at all in kid wizards and quests for identity and all that.

    But I hated “Grotesque,” maybe because Kirino is so good. It was like being trapped in a bell jar full of noxious gases.

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