Planet Mystery: Japan

September 30, 2010

Japan has ‘way too many great mystery writers to tackle in a shortish blog post, so I have chosen four women for the first go-round: Miyuki Miyabe, Asa Nonami, Natsuo Kirino, and the Agatha Christie of Japan, Shizuko Natsuki.

Miyuki Miyabe is one of Japan’s best known and most prolific contemporary authors, having penned not only a world-class bunch of mysteries, but also fantasy/sci-fi, children’s books, and historical fiction. In March 2006, I reviewed what would become an English language bestseller for her, Crossfire:

Crossfire
By Miyuki Miyabe
Kodansha, $24.95
408 pages
ISBN 4770029934

“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.”

The Hunter
By Asa Nonami
Kodansha, $24.95
272 pages
ISBN 9784770030252

Asa Nonami wrote her classic The Hunter in 1996, although it didn’t make it to Western shores for another decade. Some of her other titles will take a bit of creative editing to be saleable in English-speaking markets, however: Regrets, a Female Detective Takako Sound Passage; or, my personal fave, Takako Fall Flower Girl Detective at the Sound of the Street Murder. Appended below is my BookPage review of The Hunter, oddly (but certainly appropriately) the first column I penned after arriving in Japan:

“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.”

Real World
By Natsuo Kirino
Knopf, $22.95
224 pages, ISBN 9780307267573

 

Natsuo Kirino is something of a legend among my fellow mystery aficionados (author Timothy Hallinan, for example, reports that Kirino is on his “automatic buy” list). Her bestselling novel Out was made into a hit film in Japan, and it just begs for subtitles or an American adaptation. The basic plot is that a woman strangles her brutish husband in a fit of rage, then reluctantly turns to some work colleagues to help her cover up her bad act. The four women chop up the body, and distribute parts to local dumpsters, but get caught in the act by a would-be blackmailer. He doesn’t want money, though; he wants the four women to dispose of bodies in similar fashion, and on a contract basis! Here is a review of her follow-up book, Real World, published in BookPage in August 2008:

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.

Murder at Mt. Fuji; Shizuko Natsuki; Ballantine (paperback); ISBN 9780345337610; as to the page count and the price, your guess is as good as mine…

As mentioned above, Shizuko Natsuki bears the well-deserved moniker of “Doyenne of Japanese Mystery Writers”. Her Murder at Mt. Fuji is a classic of the “closed-room” suspense novel that has delighted several generations of readers since the early days of Christie, and even before (think Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, for example). The book is set at the villa of the wealthy Wada family, in the shadow of Japan’s highest mountain. Niece Chiyo has brought her American friend along to meet the family, and to ring in the New Year. But before the evening is out, Yohei Wada lies dead, and Chiyo blurts out a hasty confession to his murder. Things are not what they seem, however, and the family’s attempts at cover-up and preserving their good name may indeed cloak a darker motive altogether.

As far as I can tell, Shizuko Natsuki’s books are now out-of-print in the US, although they are still readily available at used bookstores and online.

So there you have it, part one of what will likely be at least a four-part series on mysteries from the Land of the Rising Yen. Stay tuned!

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www.translatestuffintoanotherlanguage.com

September 29, 2010

Okay, I just made that website up, but there are literally dozens of translation programs available nowadays for folks with friends or business associates who mostly speak another language. Five years from now, or ten or twenty, these sites will undoubtedly be a major boon to communications, understanding and even world peace, but for now they are a primary contributor to international hilarity.

A case in point: I just heard that my friend Junko had to be hospitalized in Tokyo for some minor gastrointestinal problems. Of course I wanted to send her a get-well card, but had I done that by conventional post, it would have arrived several days after her recovery. So, instead, I sent an email to her cell phone. It read: “Dear Jun-chan, I am sorry to hear that you are in the hospital. I hope you will be feeling better soon. I am looking forward to seeing you when I get back to Japan in the fall. Get well soon! Your friend, Bruce” Innocuous enough, right?

Then, because Junko’s English is about as execrable as my Japanese (never mind that she was an English major in college!), I used an internet translator program to render the message into Japanese. The gist of it made it through the translation, but the gods live in the details, so they say, and the details were a bit muddled to say the least: “Dear Jun-chan, I am sorry to hear that you became a hospital. I look forward to feeling you better when I return to Japan in the fall. Take care! Your friend, Bruce.” I got such a chuckle out of it that I sent it without edits, although I did add a small disclaimer that the translation had been done by an internet translator, so please excuse any shortcomings.

This morning I received a reply from Jun-chan: “Thanks a lot. I’m happy mail. Get well as soon as possible to show a healthy appearance comes back to Japan two people wants to eat your food blues. What can I say, and I’m in the hospital, but please somehow important to the body. I look forward to seeing the day. Your friend, Junko” I’m still working on the nuance of this email, and will report any breakthroughs. 

My friend Julia, who lives in Austria and speaks primarily German, finishes off her emails to me (written in German and then translated with a web program into English) with “yours truly” or “sincerely” (so she says), but what comes across in English is the infinitely more charming closing “much fun to be had by all”.

So what have we learned from all this? Well:

1: Junko inexplicably became a hospital

2: Bru-chan is looking forward to feeling her better

3: Junko has once again morphed, this time into “happy mail”

4: Junko wants Bru-chan to get better soon, so that two people can eat his food blues

5: This is in some form or fashion important to the body

6: And, as is quite often the case, Julia gets in the last word, “much fun to be had by all!”


Watching the Detectives…Drive

September 27, 2010

This idea for a blog post is such a natural for me, I cannot believe I haven’t thought of it before: an informal, and by no means complete, compilation of the cars driven by fictional detectives, past and present. I can’t exactly remember when I became a car buff and a mystery buff, but let’s just say that it dates back at least to the 1957 T-Bird and the Hardy Boys books (back when the T-Bird had a “porthole” top, the Hardy Boys books still had dust jackets, and the pair drove a “flivver” on double dates; yikes!). I try to keep these posts to around five hundred words, so there will likely be a number of revisits to the theme should it prove popular. So here, in no particular order, are the first few:

Elvis Cole (Robert Crais): we might as well start with a particular favorite (both detective and car), so how about Elvis Cole’s yellow 1966 Corvette convertible? The classic Sting Ray should be a shoe-in for the detective automotive hall of fame, a perfect complement for the outgoing wiseguy PI (although its “stealth car” credentials for tailing a bad guy would be somewhat limited).

Shell Scott (Richard Prather): for the better part of forty years, Shell Scott was a mainstay of detective fiction; some three dozen novels and short story compilations were published, during which time the character never aged (much like Sue Grafton’s iconic protagonist, Kinsey Millhone). Scott’s ride of choice, a white Cadillac ragtop with red leather upholstery. (A side note: convertibles were particularly popular in television and cinema adaptations of novels, as they made it very easy to see, and film, the characters during the driving sequences.)

Alex Delaware (Jonathan Kellerman): another Caddy aficionado, although the respected psychologist is not so much a softtop fan; he drives a 1979 Seville, a sedate four-door sedan, exceptionally well kept. When he and his friend, LA cop Milo Sturgis, go on detecting adventures, they often take Delaware’s car, as Milo much prefers it to his normal ride, an LAPD Crown Victoria.

Travis McGee (John D. MacDonald): McGee, who lives on a houseboat in a Florida marina (Bahia Mar, in Ft. Lauderdale), drives “Miss Alice”, an elderly electric blue Rolls Royce that has been converted into a pickup truck, quite possibly the worst stealth vehicle on the planet. When McGee has to do some undercover work, he rents an anonymous sedan.

Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell): Virginia medical examiner Scarpetta drives a hot rodded Mercedes-Benz S-class sedan, which she trades in regularly; fortunately, she has a fat bank account at her disposal, as the six-figure Benz would be out of the range of most government employees.

Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton): Millhone, a Northern California girl, drives an aging VW Beetle, dating from the Summer of Love; as noted in thrillingdetective.com. Millhone “drives a decrepit Volkswagen, she cuts her own hair with toenail scissors, she lives in a garage with a closet full of neuroses and one dress…” Sounds about right for the driver of an aged Bug.

So, there’s the first installment; if you have a favorite you would like to see added, please don’t hesitate to let me know!


Dancing Lessons From God

September 25, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut wrote famously in his beloved novel Cat’s Cradle: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” It is a quote that I have repeated on countless occasions, and indeed, the motto by which I try to live my life. It has gotten a workout over the past year, during which time I could be found crawling around pre-Expo construction sites along the Shanghai Bund, hiking alongside fjords and through glacial fields in western Newfoundland, and spending Chinese New Year in a subtropical Korean Island, in the middle of an uncharacteristic snowstorm. It is more than a bit weird to see swaying palm trees covered with icicles.

A couple Decembers ago, I was in Tokyo, on the phone with my brother, Thane, who lives in Los Angeles. We commiserated about missing the holidays together yet again, at which point he said “Why don’t you come here for Christmas?” The biggest and best reason was that I had been planning a trip to Thailand, a place I had never visited, which promised a steamily exotic Yuletide experience. Or possibly Hong Kong, the crossroads of the world, another place I had missed (although I have since rectified that omission). Still, the pull of family was strong, and so Saki and I headed for LA, for her second time, but my umpteenth.

The following year, once again in December, once again on the phone with Thane, I suggested that he and his wife come to spend the holidays with us in Tokyo. He hemmed and hawed a bit, but I could tell that the idea held some appeal for him. He had to get a new passport before he could leave, and he wasn’t sure how quickly that could be effected, he told me. Suspicious soul that I am, I thought I heard equivocation in his voice, so I closed the conversation with “You know, Kurt Vonnegut once said ‘Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.’” Let him stew on that thought for a bit…

As it happened, he was able to get his passport situation sorted out in the requisite amount of time, and a couple of days before Christmas I stood expectantly at the top of the escalator in Nippori train station, waiting to meet his train from Narita Airport. From there we would take a series of trains and buses to my apartment in suburban Tokyo. We had ten days or so together, blessed by the travel deities both with good weather and the abundant grace of being at the right place at the right time, more times than we could count. One evening, Thane and I took a walk down to Inageya, the local grocery store; we were marvelling about how well the trip had gone, and what an unalloyed pleasure it had been knocking around the largest city in the world together. He looked over at me and said, chuckling, “What really did it for me was the ‘dancing lessons from God’ quote. When you said that, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I didn’t somehow get to Japan this Christmas, I would be a big wuss, and I would always regret it.”

So there’s the challenge: next time somebody says “how about coming with me to (fill in the blank with some vowel-laden destination you’ve only barely heard of)”, give it some serious thought. At the end of the day, you don’t want people going around behind your back saying you’re a wuss.


Saints Prius-erve Us!

September 23, 2010

Yesterday afternoon, after the better part of a day’s worth of errands, I plopped down in my well-used (and well-loved) leather recliner to finish book number two (of four) for my November BookPage Whodunit column. I was a hundred-odd pages into the book when I noticed what appeared to be a glaring inaccuracy. So I emailed Abby, my editor, to see if there was somebody I could talk to at the publishing house, with the idea of their making a couple of quick changes before the book went to press. She suggested talking to the publicist, so I did that; he wasn’t sure if there would still be time to make changes, but said that he would forward them on to the printer, and see what could be done. We both had a bit of a chuckle about it before hanging up and returning to our respective duties.

You are probably wondering what the inaccuracy might be; well, here it is, quoted directly from the ARC (Advance Reader Copy of the book): “All he’d need now was for the car not to start…but that didn’t happen, the engine caught on the first turn of the key.” So what’s the problem? Well, the car in question, a Toyota Prius, starts not with a turn of a key, but with a press of a button (I cannot swear that that is the case with all Priuses, but it certainly is true with later model ones). The author followed up a few paragraphs later with: “The Prius’s rear tires couldn’t gain traction, spun futilely…” The problem there? Well, a Prius is a front-wheel-drive car, so any tire spinning antics would happen with the front wheels, not the rears. Are you thinking, as I was, that the author had likely never driven a Prius? (In the interest of fairness, I am not going to mention the author’s name, until or unless the book makes it into print unchanged, at which point I suspect I will have a bit of fun at his or her expense.)

The writer in question would by no means be the first to have an issue with fact-checking, particularly where cars are concerned. Irish author John Connolly once had a villain escape from a remote Maine forest by means of a Nissan Terrano. What is a Nissan Terrano, you ask? Well, it is a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle well suited to the wilds of Maine—if only it were imported to America. For the Terrano is a European-market vehicle, one we don’t get here.

The aforementioned Abby emailed me back to say: “Those are some hawk eyes. I would have totally missed that. Then again, I drive a gas-guzzling ’96 Explorer…” To which I replied: “As to the eagle eyes, it’s just what you’re used to. If it had been, say, a chain saw, a stove, or a sewing machine, he could have said it was nuclear powered and I would have believed it implicitly. It just happens that I am an insufferable car guy, plagued with snippets of knowledge that I can’t seem to shake loose.” Abby’s final rejoinder: “Thanks for the update. I’m glad the publicist got a laugh out of it—you have to! And you’re right. If a galley had some misinformation about celebrities, or my favorite fall TV shows—I would catch it.”

So, when November rolls around, have a look at the print edition of BookPage, or check it out online at www.bookpage.com, and see if there is any mention of an errant Prius; if not, the errors were caught in time, and didn’t make it into the book; otherwise, expect a bit of playful ribbing!


Japanese Cemeteries, and a Brief Afterthought from Southeastern PEI

September 22, 2010

Twice each year, there are Japanese holidays, the remarkably similar sounding Shunbun No Hi (in the spring) and Shuubun No Hi (in the fall), for visiting the graves of departed loved ones. The family and friends of the deceased pay their respects graveside, and then retire to a nearby restaurant or bar for what might be the only two times of the year they get together. There, they will share anecdotes, finger foods, and alcohol, and catch up on the day-to-day stuff in one another’s lives since the last time they met.

This past Shunbun No Hi, I asked a friend how the burial site was chosen, and she told me that people were most often buried in the graveyard of the temple they routinely visited, or in some way supported, over the course of their lifetimes. She said that the families paid an up-front charge, and then a yearly maintenance fee. I had (and have) no particular intention to be buried in Japan, but I was curious nonetheless as to what this service might cost. As with most things, the answer was dependent upon the magnitude and the splendor of the rendering, but in broad terms, surprisingly expensive compared to what we euphemistically call “perpetual care” in North America. Also, it should be noted that there is quite a bit less square footage involved as well, considering that most Japanese are cremated.

“Wow,” I said, hovering on the cusp between impressed and appalled. “Who pays for all this?” She told me that the fees are typically paid by members of the immediate family, and that there is some seriously good karma attached to providing well for your late nearest and dearest; presumably if you are seen to be a strong supporter of family values, in death as well as in life, the ones left behind will treat your leftover bits and pieces accordingly when your time comes. “Here’s one thing I don’t get, though,” I said. “What happens when all of the relatives and friends who knew you personally die as well? Who pays to keep things up for your Great Grandaunt Tamako’s gravesite, for instance?” (I just made that last part up as a hypothetical; to my knowledge there is no Great Grandaunt Tamako in the family.)

“Oh, well, when there is nobody to keep on paying for the grave, then they dig you up and put you in a community grave in the back part of the cemetery,” my friend replied. “That way they make space for new people who die.” That’s a little bit unsettling at first, but it makes more sense the more you think about it, especially in a country where space is at a premium. All evidence suggests that thirty or forty years down the road you won’t mind being dug up and moved to the “condo” section of town; indeed, remarkably few complaints are lodged by the tenants who have been downsized. Your name gets engraved on a granite wall, so in case somewhere down the road you become belatedly and unexpectedly famous, your (potential) hordes of admirers can track you down. They can leave flowers, have their photos taken alongside your name on the granite wall, or if they are really committed to your afterlife well-being, they can spring for another individual plot.

As soon as one comes open.

A brief afterthought from southeastern PEI: here in the outlying provinces we have our own way of dealing with space issues, the head cemetery (see pic); I have not been able to get a straight answer as to where the remainder of the body(ies) may be found.


Heaven and Hell Redefined, a Sinking Cruise Ship, and a Tipsy Fly

September 21, 2010

There’s an old joke of sorts that compares heaven and hell, using representatives from a number of European countries as both the heroes and the villains of the piece, depending upon your point of view. Five nationalities are represented: the English; the French; the Germans; the Italians; and the Swiss. In heaven, so the story goes, the cooks are French, the police are English, the carmakers are German, the money guys are Swiss and the lovers are Italian. In hell, the cooks are English, the police are German, the carmakers are French, the money guys are Italian, and the lovers are Swiss. I happened to mention this in passing to a Japanese friend, and she said that such stories were legendary in Japan as well, albeit with a different group of subjects.

Case in point: the cruise ship is sinking, and the captain has only a limited number of spaces on the lifeboat, which in all good conscience should go first to the women and children. His passengers are a diverse mix of American, Canadian, English, Japanese. German, and Chinese; he must use a different tactic for each nationality in an effort to stop them from crowding ahead in the queue for the few available seats. To the American he says, “Please let the women and children on first; you will be a hero.” To the Canadian, he says, “Please be polite and let the women and children on first.” To the Englishman, he says, “A gentleman would let the women and children on first.” To the Japanese, he says, “Please let the women and children on first; that is what everyone else is doing.” To the German, he says, “Let the women and children on first. It is the rule.” And to the Chinese, he says “Jump in; there are fish in the water.”

These tales play upon our stereotypes of one another’s cultures, to be sure, but each has more than a grain of truth, as anyone who has ever suffered through an English meal (or presumably a Swiss lover) can surely attest. Not only that, but folks are remarkably willing, even eager, to regale others with these stories about their own peccadilloes and those of their countrymen.

The most recent one I heard was set in a hotel bar; the bar could be anywhere, and the story would still work, but let’s say it is set in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, a location with which I have some acquaintance. It is quite the uncommon bar, possibly the one in the Delta Hotel, in that it has an unusual number of international customers, in this case an American, an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German and a Chinese (a veritable cornucopia for the advanced student of global sociology). In each case, the patron of the moment orders a Molson Canadian Ale, and when it arrives there is a fly buzzing about in the foam. How to deal with this delicate situation?

The American way: summons the waiter, points out the fly in the glass, asks to have it spilled out and a replacement glass of ale brought to the table; when the bill arrives, he pays for only one beer.

The English way: says nothing about it to the bartender; doesn’t drink the ale, although he does pay for it; never returns to that bar again.

The French way: demands to speak to the owner; has the bartender pour out the ale in front of him; gets a replacement glass of ale, a larger one at that, and pays nothing whatsoever.

The German way: thinks about it for a few minutes, decides that the alcohol will have killed any germs brought to the party by the fly; flicks the fly out of the foam with the corner of his napkin and proceeds to drink the beer.

The Chinese way: studies the foam briefly; thinks “this is interesting…” and, shrugging his shoulders, dismisses it as an curious Canadian custom; downs the beer, fly and all.