Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Matsumoto Seichō added fundamentally to Japanese crime fiction. His work integrated psychology and sociology into the genre, and explored some darker elements in Japanese society. This feature can only be improved by including one of his novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Inspector Imanishi Investigates.
As the novel begins, the body of an unknown man is discovered under a Tokyo train. The police are alerted, and Inspector Imanishi Eitaro is one of the detectives assigned to the case. The first task is to identify the victim, which doesn’t turn out to be as easy as it might seem. But eventually, he is identified as Miki Ken’ichi, the retired owner of a store in Okayama. His son and daughter-in-law learn of his death and his son travels to Tokyo to identify him. From him, Imanishi finds out a bit about the victim. Miki was once a police officer, but retired from that position and opened up a store. When his son was ready to take over, Miki decided to take a trip. But instead of following his planned itinerary, he went to Tokyo on what seems to have been impulse. Shortly thereafter, he was killed.
At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive. For one thing, Miki was far from wealthy. He wore cheap clothes and had very little money with him, so robbery isn’t the motive. And, as the team looks into his background, they find that he was highly regarded in Okayama. In fact, he’s described as ‘kind as Buddha.’ So, this isn’t a case of revenge, or of a corrupt police officer who finally gets what he deserves.
Then, there’s another death, an apparent suicide. Naruse Rieko, who worked at the Avant-Garde Theatre, is found dead in her home. And it’s not long before Imanishi connects her death to Miki’s. Then, there’s another death, also with a connection to the theatre. At first, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why Miki, who lived far away from Tokyo, should have any connection to the theatre, or to the Nouveau group of artists, musicians and writers linked to it. But, little by little, and after another death, Imanishi and his team put the pieces of that puzzle together. It turns out that these deaths have everything to do with a past that someone wants covered up.
This is a police procedural. So, there’s a great deal of interviewing witnesses, following up leads, and so on. The novel was published in 1961, a time before the Internet and other modern technology. Therefore, the police get a lot of their information from interviews, door-to-door questioning, and so on. And Imanishi does his share of travel, too, to get answers. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the trail leads to several places outside Tokyo, and that means some long train trips.
Also in part because of the time when the novel was published, this case isn’t solved quickly. The murder of Miki occurs on the night of 11 May. The guilty person isn’t caught until 30 November. Readers who prefer very fast-paced novels will notice the length of time that it takes to reach the end of this particular case. It’s also worth noting that Matsumoto makes it clear that the police are not perfect. There are a few wrong turns, false leads, and things that don’t mean what the police think they mean.
The novel takes place in 1961 Japan, a time when World War II was still quite fresh in people’s minds. The war’s destruction plays a part in the story, and there are still places that haven’t recovered. It’s not an easy time, and novel reflects this. The war has changed everything, but where is the country to go from here?
In some senses, the Japan that Matsumoto describes is still traditional. There’s a very traditional relationship, for instance, between Imanishi and his wife, Yoshiko. And people interact with the sort of politeness ritual that’s probably much less common now. That includes the interactions between police and witnesses. In fact, that sense of ‘what’s expected’ plays its role in the case.
At the same time, there’s Western influence, and there’s a group of young intellectuals, artists, and the like, who want to see great changes. They experiment with theatre, music, and other forms of artistic endeavor, trying to break the bounds of tradition. That sense of alienation, and the wish to break from the past, add a sense of unease to the story.
That anomie contributes to some darkness in the novel. It’s clear that lives have changed forever, and innocent people are killed. Yet, this isn’t a completely noir story. Readers who like a case ‘wrapped up’ will appreciate the fact that the culprit is caught in the end, and actually led away. Still, the story behind the deaths is a very sad one. And Matsumoto shows that the matter isn’t really as ‘black and white’ as traditional concepts of crime and punishment would suggest. In all of this, we can see that this novel bridges a gap between more traditional, intellectual-puzzle, sort of novels, and more modern Japanese noir fiction.
The story is told mostly from Imanishi’s point of view (third person, past tense). So, we learn a bit about him. He’s in his forties, successfully married to Yoshiko, and the father of ten-year-old Taro. Readers who dislike dysfunctional, drunken detectives will pleased to know that Imanishi is neither. He has his faults, but this novel doesn’t focus on domestic strife. He’s respected in his job, and although he makes mistakes, he’s also not a ‘maverick’ who can’t work within bounds.
Some parts of the story follow some of the members of the Nouveau group (also third person, past tense), so we also get a look at life among the younger generation, born during and just before the war. Readers who like to follow only one story thread will notice this.
Inspector Imanishi Investigates is a uniquely Japanese police procedural. It takes place at a time of great change in the country, and shows both the country’s traditions (including haiku) and more modern ways of life. And it features a dedicated detective who is very much a product of his culture. But what’s your view? Have you read Inspector Imanishi Investigates? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 10 July/Tuesday, 11 July – A Morbid Taste For Bones – Ellis Peters
Monday, 17 July/Tuesday, 18 July – Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham
Monday, 24 July/Tuesday 25 July – Bloody Waters – Carolina Garcia-Aguilera