Category Archives: Sujata Massey

She Calls My Name, Pulls My Train*

One of the real pleasures of being an avid reader is getting to know the work of new-to-me authors. And, with so much fine crime fiction out there, there are a lot of authors to ‘meet.’ That’s why I really enjoy taking part in the quarterly ‘New (to me anyway) Authors’ meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. By the way, if you’re not familiar with that excellent blog, you’ll want to pay it a visit and make it an important part of your blog rounds. Lots of fine reviews await you there.

This quarter, I had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ Sujata Massey. Born in the UK, Massey has made her home in the US for most of her life, and currently lives in Baltimore. In fact, she was a features writer for the Baltimore Evening Sun before turning full-time to writing. And her writing has been successful. She’s won both Agatha and Macavity awards, and been a finalist for several others, too.

Her most recent novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill, takes place in 1920’s Bombay, and has been quite successful. But she is perhaps best known for her Rei Shimura novels, which are contemporary crime novels. The protagonist is a half-Japanese/half-American antiques expert who makes her home base in Tokyo, although she does travel to other places as well.

In The Salaryman’s Wife, the first in the series, Shimura is teaching English in Tokyo, hoping to save enough money and make enough connections to open an antiques business. She takes a short holiday in the Japanese Alps, staying at a traditional B&B there. One morning, she gets drawn into a murder investigation when she discovers the body of one of the other guests. Since she found the body, she’s a ‘person of interest’ as it is. Then, another guest is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and Shimura wants to believe him (not least because she’s attracted to him). So, she starts to ask questions in order to clear both of their names. As the series goes on, Shimura develops as an antiques expert, and later, catches the attention of the US State Department. In several of the novels (there are currently 11 in the series), she uses her expertise to do undercover work for that agency.

Want to know more about Sujata Massey? Her website is here.

Want to know more about The Salaryman’s Wife? It’s right here.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lee Mavers’ There She Goes.

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Still Trying to Clear My Name*

One of the tropes we see in crime fiction is the plot point where the sleuth is accused, or at least, suspected, of the crime that’s under investigation. It’s not easy to pull off, since readers know that the sleuth is not likely to be guilty (and didn’t Agatha Christie turn that one on its head!).

When it’s done well, though, having the sleuth suspected of crime adds tension to the story. And it gives the sleuth an added incentive to investigate. This trope turns up in all sorts of crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other people in the cabin, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention on them. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Poirot isn’t guilty. But at the coroner’s inquest, he’s considered quite a suspicious character, and the jury returns a verdict against him. The coroner doesn’t accept the verdict, and Poirot is at no risk of being arrested. But, as he says,
 

‘‘…I must set to work and clear my character.’’
 

And that’s exactly what he does.

In Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That?, Charles Paris gets a new acting job – a ‘play as cast’ part in the Pintero Theatre’s upcoming production of The Scottish Play. One day, rehearsals go particularly badly, and the entire cast goes out to drown their sorrows. Paris comes back to the theatre afterwards, quite a bit the worse for wear, and falls asleep there. He wakes up just after three in the morning, to find that he’s been locked in to the building. And then he finds the body of Warnock Belvedere, who had the role of Duncan. Paris knows that things don’t look good for him. He’s innocent, but he doesn’t expect the police to believe him. So, he avoids them as much as he can, for as long as he can. He also starts looking for the real murderer, so he can clear his name. It’s not going to be easy, though, as just about everyone in the production had a reason to want the victim dead.

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, we are introduced to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. When the body of a former patient is pulled from London’s Grand Union Canal, Inspector Vincent Ruiz investigates. As it happens, O’Loughlin was close to the scene when the body was discovered. And the victim is someone he knew. So, Ruiz asks for his help in finding a possible motive. But the more evidence he finds, the more it seems that O’Loughlin knows more than he is saying about this murder. Then, there are other murders, and O’Loughlin is implicated. Now, he’s going to have to find out the truth and persuade Ruiz of it if he’s to clear his name. And that truth turns out to be very dangerous.

Denise Mina’s Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell begins with Garnethill. In it, O’Donnell wakes up one morning after a long night of drinking. She discovers the body of her former boyfriend, Douglas Brodie, in her living room. It’s not long before she comes ‘a person of interest,’ and then an official suspect, in the case. For one thing, there’s the obvious: the body was found in her home, and she can give no explanation. For another, she’d recently found out that Brodie was married. And then there’s the fact of her fragile mental health. She knows that the police aren’t going to believe she’s innocent, and that she’ll likely end up in prison. So, she decides to find out who the killer is, so she can clear her name.

When we first meet her, in The Salaryman’s Wife, Sujata Masesy’s Rei Shimura is an antiques dealer and expert who lives and works in Tokyo. She also teaches English to help make ends meet. She decides to treat herself to a New Year’s holiday at a traditional B&B near Shiroyama, in the Japanese Alps. All goes well enough until the morning when Shimura discovers the body of Setsuko Nakamura, one of the other guests. Captain Jiro Okuhara is assigned to the case, and he and his team begin their work. Shimura is a ‘person of interest’ to begin with, since she discovered the body. And Okuhara isn’t entirely convinced that her account of what happened is really the truth. Still, there are several other suspects, and Shimura isn’t immediately accused. Soon, however, another guest, attorney Hugh Glendinning, is. In fact, he’s charged with the crime. He says he’s innocent, and Shimura wants to believe him, not least because she is attracted to him. Partly to clear her own name, and partly to clear Glendinning’s, if he is innocent, Shimura starts her own search for the truth. And it turns that search is a lot more dangerous than she’d thought.

And then there’s Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, which introduces her sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. She’s a criminologist and academician who teaches at the University of Vancouver. When an injury leaves a colleague unable to deliver a paper at an upcoming symposium, Morgan takes his place. The symposium is in Nice, so she’s looking forward to the trip. While she’s in Nice, she encounters a former employer, Alistair Townsend. Townsend remembers her, and invites her to his wife, Tamsin’s, birthday party. Morgan doesn’t want to attend, since her relationship with Townsend was not at all a pleasant one. He insists, though, so she finally agrees. During the party, Townsend collapses and dies of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. Captain Moreau and Lieutenant Bertrand take over the investigation. Morgan is the only ‘outsider.’ She had no regular access to the victim (and so, would take advantage of an event like the party) and has made no secret of the fact that she hated him. So, the police pay a fair amount of attention to her as a likely suspect. Mostly to clear her own name, Morgan starts asking questions, and finds that plenty of people had a good reason to want Townsend dead.

Being accused of murder can add a strong motive for the sleuth to investigate. And it can add tension to a story. There are plenty of examples in the genre; these are just a few…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Chris Rea.

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Just Picture a Great Big Steak*

One of the things I love about crime fiction is the way it shows how we’ve changed over time. As society changes, so do social attitudes and customs. One of the many kinds of changes we’ve seen is in our diets and the way people eat.

I got to thinking about this after an interesting comment exchange with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog. By the way, if you like to read crime fiction, especially classic and Golden Age crime fiction, you don’t want to miss Brad’s richly detailed and informative blog. I learn every time I visit. Every time.

Brad and I were mentioning Fritz Brenner, who, as Rex Stout fans know, is Nero Wolfe’s chef. He is world-class, and always creates gourmet eating experiences for his boss. But, by today’s standards, we’d probably say that his cooking is far too rich and too full of calories, fat, and so on. Our views about what people should be eating have certainly changed since Stout was writing. Today’s top chefs know that there are healthful ways to cook that are also unforgettably delicious and beautifully presented. And many restaurants now offer vegetarian/vegan options, smaller servings, and low-fat/low-calorie dishes.

Choices such as low-calorie foods or vegetarianism haven’t always been seen as mainstream as they are now. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing when one of its prominent residents, wealthy Emily Arundell, unexpectedly dies. At first, her death is put down to liver failure, but soon enough, it turns out that she was poisoned. And that wasn’t the first attempt on her life. Not many months before, she had a fall down a staircase that was deliberately engineered. There are several suspects in this case, since Miss Arundell’s relatives are all in need of money. And there’s the fact that her companion, Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson, has inherited most of her fortune. Two of the witnesses that Poirot talks to are Isabel and Julia Tripp, who are friends of Minnie Lawson, and who were there on the night Miss Arundell died. These are eccentric ladies, to put it mildly. They have many non-conformist beliefs and are avid spiritualists. To add to this, they are vegetarians. While that fact isn’t the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder, it offers a glimpse of how such a diet might have been viewed at the time. Certainly, Poirot, who is a gourmand, is not exactly excited about the prospect of having dinner with the Tripp sisters…

Just because our views of what ‘counts’ as an appropriate diet have changed, doesn’t mean that all fictional sleuths eat healthfully. For instance, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel isn’t particularly concerned with keeping to a healthy diet. He’s not stupid; he knows that it’s a good idea to limit fat, salt, and so on. But he likes his pub grub and has no intention of cutting things like bacon out of his diet. The same goes for Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. It’s not that they don’t know what they ought to be eating. Fans of Dexter’s series, for instance, know that Morse’s doctors have told him often enough. But that’s not the way they live their lives. What’s interesting about these sleuths’ attitudes is that they go against the proverbial tide. It’s now considered perfectly normal – even healthy – to eat less meat, less salt and fat, fewer fried foods, and so on.

We see another interesting example of that change in attitude in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series. Quant is a Saskatoon-based PI who does enjoy the occasional ‘not-good-for-you-but-delicious’ meal at his ‘watering hole,’ Colourful Mary’s. Still, he tries to watch what and how much he eats. That becomes difficult when his mother, Kay, comes for a visit in Flight of Aquavit. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her life making heavy-duty meals for hard-working farm people. So, her idea of what ‘counts’ as breakfast, for instance, are quite different to her son’s. It’s not that Quant doesn’t enjoy her cooking; he does. It’s delicious. But he also knows it’s got many times more calories, fat, salt, and so on than he should be having. This difference in views isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does show how our attitudes about diet have changed. It also shows (but this is perhaps the topic for another time), how lifestyle, culture, and other factors influence diet.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a Göteborg police detective, whose squad investigates murder and other violent crimes. In Night Rounds, we learn that Huss’ daughter, Jenny, has decided to become vegan. In fact, in one sub-plot, Jenny goes out one night with a militant vegan group to do what she thinks will simply be putting up vegan posters. It turns into something far more than that, and things quickly turn ugly. Fortunately for Jenny, Huss has suspected there might be trouble, and is able to get Jenny out of harm’s way. Jenny’s choice to become vegan does set up a conflict with her father, Krister, who is a well-regarded chef. But neither veganism nor a more conventional diet is portrayed as ‘right.’ It makes for an interesting discussion of what we think of when we think of ‘good’ food.

Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura is a half-Japanese/half-American antiques dealer who’s originally based in Tokyo (although her adventures do take her to several other places). She likes and respects some of the Japanese traditions she’s learned, but in many ways, she has a very modern outlook. And that includes her choice to be a vegetarian. What’s really interesting about that is that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow as a rule. It’s simply accepted. And that shows something, at least to me, about the way our views about diet have changed.

That makes sense, too, since society is always changing. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, if you’ll be kind enough to go visit Brad’s blog, I’ll excuse myself. It’s time for lunch!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.

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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

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