In The Spotlight: Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Modern Japan, especially modern Tokyo, is a fascinating blend of Japanese traditions, today’s technology, and international influence. And there’s the fact that it’s a large, cosmopolitan city. So, it’s little wonder that it makes such an effective context for a crime novel. Let’s take a look at one today and turn the spotlight on Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife, the first in her Rei Shimura series.

Shimura is the daughter of a Japanese father and an American mother. Originally from San Francisco, she’s been living in Japan for a few years, teaching English, and dreaming of opening her own antiques business. She’s saved up a little money and has decided to treat herself to a New Year’s holiday at a traditional B&B near Shiroyama, in the Japanese Alps. The other guests are a disparate group. Some are employees of an important Tokyo company, Sendai, Limited; others are there as couples, or, like Shimura, on their own. Because it’s a B&B, the guests are at close quarters, and there is a little awkwardness. But, more or less, things go well enough until the morning Shimura discovers the body of one of the guests, Setsuko Nakamura.

The police are called in, in the form of Captain Jiro Okuhara, and the investigation begins. One possibility is that the victim committed suicide. That’s not impossible, as she was in a great deal of debt. But there isn’t solid evidence for that explanation. And before long, the police settle on murder as the manner of death and start the work of finding the killer.

There are several possibilities, too. One is her husband, Seiji Nakamura, who works for Sendai. There are several witnesses to the fact that their marriage was not a happy one. And there was her debt. Shimura herself is a ‘person of interest,’ since she found the body. And there’s Hugh Glendinning, a lawyer who works for Sendai. The company itself is another lead that has to be followed. The victim was not above blackmail, and she could easily have found out some things about company doings that people wanted to keep private. There’s also the strong possibility that some people at Sendai may have links to the yakuza. If that’s the case, then the murder might be a syndicate ‘hit.’ There are a lot of possibilities to explore.

Before long, the evidence points to Glendinning, and he is duly arrested. He claims he’s innocent, and Shimura wants to believe him (not least because she is attracted to him). But she may be very wrong about him. In part to clear her own name, and in part to clear Glendinning of suspicion if he is innocent, Shimura starts asking questions. As she finds out more about Setsuko Nakamura’s past, her dealings, and her relationships, Shimura gets closer and closer to the truth. And that gets her into more and more danger. Finally, and after another murder, she gets the answers she needs.

This is a traditional-style mystery (it was actually the winner of the 1997 Agatha Award for Best First Novel). So, the focus is on the ‘whodunit.’ There is a police investigation, but it’s really Shimura, with help from some of her friends, who puts the pieces together. As you would expect with this sort of mystery, the violence is not brutal or gory. And readers who prefer a minimum of explicit language in their novels will be pleased to know that there’s almost no profanity.

For all that, though, this is not a ‘jolly romp.’ There is real danger for Shimura as she tries to get to the truth. More than once, she’s urged to let the matter go, and at one point, that’s what she chooses to do. But it’s not that easy to extricate herself. The solution to the mystery isn’t a happy one, and I can say without spoiling the story that Setsuko Nakamura was not an ‘innocent angel.’

One of the important elements in the novel is the look it gives the reader at contemporary (well, 1997) Japan. It’s still the era before mobile telephones and social media, and there are clear gender-based societal ‘rules.’ But Tokyo is a modern commercial, financial, tourist and shopping mecca with world-class restaurants and other amenities. As Shimura investigates, readers get a look the way modern Japanese society works. There’s a real sense of traditional ‘old world’ courtesy and custom. At the same time, there are tabloids, ‘celebrity’ TV shows, a growing population of people who aren’t ‘purely’ Japanese, a corporate world that includes women, and so on.

And Shimura balances both of those worlds. The story is told from her point of view (first person, pas tense), so we learn a lot about her. She is fluent in both Japanese and English and bridges the American and Japanese cultures. In fact, she proves to be very useful to several of the non-Japanese characters, since she’s able to help them understand how things are done in Japan. In that sense, the novel offers a unique look at Japan, since Shimura is a part of two different worlds.

The Salaryman’s Wife is a traditional-style mystery that unfolds against a backdrop of contemporary Tokyo. It features a diverse group of characters who are drawn together when one of them is killed, and it introduces a sleuth who walks an interesting fine line, so to speak, between her two cultures. But what’s your view? Have you read The Salaryman’s Wife? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 9 April/Tuesday, 10 April –  The Ghosts of Belfast – Stuart Neville

Monday, 16 April/Tuesday, 17 April – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry

Monday, 2 April/ Tuesday, 24 April – The Rules of Backyard Cricket – Jock Serong

14 Comments

Filed under Sujata Massey, The Salaryman's Wife

14 responses to “In The Spotlight: Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife

  1. I did read this book, maybe 15 years ago, but I did not continue with the series. I liked it but wasn’t drawn to more of them. I will be curious if you get comments from those who have read later books in the series.

    • I’ll be interested in what others think of the series, too, Tracy. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some books have that impact. You read them and enjoy them, but don’t choose to make any effort to read more in the series. I’ve had that happen to me, too.

  2. It’s an intriguing premise and sounds like an interesting way to show a different culture. Does it have the feel of Japanese crime fiction or is it more geared towards the American side?

    • Oh, that’s a fascinating question, FictionFan. Hmm…I think it feels a bit more ‘Western’ than Japanese. That said, though, it does include what feels like a very authentic look at more-or-less contemporary Japan. That is, it’s not a ‘fish-out-of-water’ story where Shimura tries to make sense of another culture. She fits in and in her way, belongs. Sorry if that’s not a direct answer to your question…

  3. Spade & Dagger

    I read the first two books in the series a year or two ago & enjoyed the detail of living in modern(ish) Japan. For example, Massey’s interpretation of the Japanese multi-purpose living space seemed considerably more western in attitude than that of the much more recent non-fiction author Marie Kondo (the Japanese decluttering guru) in her books on tidying up.
    Years ago, I remember enjoying the cultural detail in the Superintendent Otani books by James Melville, who had spent much time working in cultural diplomacy and educational development in Japan.

    • You make an interesting distinction, Spade & Dagger, between Massey’s way of looking at life in Japan, and Kondo’s. It speaks, in my mind, to the differences in the way people view their own countries – where they grew up – and the way people view a country when they’ve lived there, even for a while, but are from somewhere else. I think that can make a difference in the way a place is portrayed. And thanks for mentioning Melville’s series.

  4. Col

    Not one that’s calling out to me I’m afraid. I haven’t had much luck with Japanese set books (orJapanese authors), though I should persevere.

  5. Kathy D.

    I haven’t read this series, but I did recently read “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” a new series by Sujata Massey. It’s set in 1921 Mumbai, then Bombay, and features a character based on the first woman lawyer in India. It’s easy reading and interesting. It was a restful read, but interesting.

  6. It does sound like a good way to look at the Japanese culture whilst having a solid whodunit. Interesting on a day when my news field talks about employers asking their female employees to take it in turns to have children to avoid too much absence from the workplace at once. We actually have a large Japanese client so I have some insight into the workplace culture which is very different to that in the Western world.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Cleo! I didn’t know you had that insight. And that whole question of expecting female employees to stagger their turns at having children raises so many questions and issues! Lots and lots that’s ripe for discussion there. As far as the book goes, I think you might find it interesting, based on your own experience. And, in my opinion, it balances that look at another way of life and culture with keeping the focus on the mystery. If you try the series, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  7. Kathy D.

    Gosh, that policy about women employees planning their having children around a wompany’s policy is strange. It may seem right to the employers, but it’s not cognizant of women’s rights to plan their families and of women’s own personal situations — age, other children, childcare, responsibilities for aging parents, living situation, health, etc.

    • Those are all important factors in deciding about when/if to have a child, Kathy. As you say, beneficial for employers, but not really practicable, given the personal situations that determine this decision.

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