Seicho Matsumoto: A Quiet Place (2016) – Kikanakatta Basho (1975)

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Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place is the second Japanese crime novel I’ve read this month. While it is very different from Keigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X, they have one thing in common – they are both unusual and full of twists.

However, the similarities stop there. Higashino depicts a modern Japan, while Matsumoto shows us a very traditional Japan. Of course, Matsumoto’s book is much older. It was originally published in 1975. The world it depicts, the world of government officials, still exists, but the society as a whole has undergone changes. It’s a ritualised, rigid, and restrictive world with strict hierarchies and rules. There isn’t a lot of freedom and losing face is something that can happen all too quickly and always has devastating consequences.

This world is the backdrop of Matsumoto’s novel. Tsuneo Asai, a government bureaucrat, is informed of his wife’s death while he’s on a business trip to Kobe. The way he handles this situation, more afraid to inconvenience his superior than to rush home and find out what happened, is typical of his mindset. Unlike most others at the department of agriculture, he doesn’t come from a good family or a prestigious university. He’s not automatically promoted but he has to work hard for every step he wants to climb. His fear, not to get promoted or to displease his superiors is so great that it overshadows every single decision.

Back home in Tokyo, Asai learns his wife died of a heart attack in front of a boutique. He knew she had a weak heart but it is still a shock. She was so careful to avoid exertion. Even though he was fond of her, to find himself widowed again, is more an inconvenience than true heartbreak. What puzzles him the most is the question what she was doing in that neighbourhood. She wasn’t someone who went out much. He knew she attended haiku classes, but other than that, she mostly stayed at home. It isn’t entirely clear why he suddenly gets so obsessed with his wife’s doings but he does. Soon he finds out that he didn’t really know her. He was sure that her haiku writing was mediocre and now he learns she had great talent. When he discovers a hotel near the boutique in front of which she died, he begins to suspect she might have visited that hotel with a lover. He’s wrong but that doesn’t stop his suspicions.

As soon as he begins to suspect his wife, he starts an investigation and even hires a private detective. Asai is as obsessed as he is tenacious. At the same time, he knows that people at work shouldn’t find out what he suspects and what he is doing. The longer he investigates, the more he entangles himself.

I followed this character with great fascination and astonishment, but for the longest time I didn’t understand why this was called a crime novel. It’s clear from the beginning that Asai’s wife wasn’t killed. So why was this labelled crime? I can assure you, it’s labelled correctly but I won’t tell you why.

Apparently Matsumoto was called the Japanese Simenon. While I enjoyed this book a lot – especially for its depiction of Japanese society and certain neighbourhoods in Tokyo – I don’t see a resemblance. Matsumoto was very prolific, so possibly other novels led to that comparison. Luckily, quite a few of them are available in translation.

I came across Matsumoto’s book on Guy’s blog here.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

This review is my third contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X – Yôgisha X no kenshin (2005)

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Every year I want to participate in Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge but most of the time I miss it. This year I thought I won’t make plans but if I happen to read Japanese literature, I will join spontaneously. Towards the end of December I felt the urge to read Japanese literature. I enjoyed my first book so much, that I’ve already read two other Japanese books. One is nonfiction, one is literary fiction, and this one, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, is a crime novel. I’d bought the German translation of this book a year ago, but only remembered it when I came across the review of another of Higashino’s novels, Malice, on Guy’s blog. I’m so glad, I finally read it. What a fantastic novel. Unusual and surprising and with such a special atmosphere. I was almost sad when it was finished.

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The premise is original. For once it’s not a “whodunnit” nor a “whydunnit” but rather a “will they get away with it”. We know from the beginning who is the murderess and why she committed the crime. Yasuko, who works in a bento shop, has killed her violent ex-husband. The only witness is her twelve year old daughter. Or so she thinks. Soon she finds out that there’s another witness – her neighbour Ishigami. She knows Ishigami by sight. Every morning, before work, he buys a bento in the shop where she works. The owners think it’s funny. They are sure he’s got a crush on her. Yasuko never even thought about it. She’s happy she’s left her ex-husband behind and doesn’t work in a bar anymore. Her life with her daughter, her work at the bento shop, fulfill her. She’s not interested in men. Ishigami has heard the fight through the thin walls and interpreted correctly that Yasuko killed her husband in self-defence. Because her daughter is in part responsible for the killing, she doesn’t want to go to the police and Ishigami tells her that he will take care of it. He will provide her with the perfect alibi.

When the dead man’s found near a river, the police soon question Yasuko and her daughter. For some reason they suspect her. But almost every element of the alibi holds up. The police also find out about Ishigami and his infatuation, and so the two are scrutinized even more closely. The detective who is in charge of the murder investigation is friends with a famous physician Dr. Yukawa. When he tells him of the investigation, they find out, that Yukawa and Ishigami used to be friends. Intrigued, Yukawa contacts Ishigami. At first he wants to renew their friendship but then he starts to suspect something and starts his own investigation.

The story is multilayered and told from different perspectives. It’s also psychologically complex. This complexity is part of the mystery. Yasuko meets Kudo, someone from her days at the bar, and begins a relationship with him. As soon as this happens, everything shifts. There’s the fear Ishigami may betray her out of jealousy. The police suspect her again because they think maybe her new lover helped her get rid of her ex-husband. And Ishigami is afraid that she might tell Kudo something.

The whole time, the reader wonders how Ishigami did it. How could he provide them with such an alibi? The end was very different from what I expected. It had two twists I didn’t see coming. While the book works as a crime novel, it’s just as good on many other levels. The characters are unusual and well-rounded. The relationships are complex and interesting. Ishigami, who’s the first narrator, is by far the most intriguing protagonist. Not only because he helps Yasuko, but because of everything else we find out about him. Not an everyday character by any means. It feels like they are all trapped in a web, and every tiny movement, affects them all. Even the police. The possible outcome, the course of the investigation is much more important for the detective than it usually is in a crime novel, because his best friend begins to investigate as well.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a very clever novel. It’s as subtle as it is complex, told in a cool tone and infused with a gentle, melancholic mood. I absolutely loved it.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

The review is my first contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.