A fierce typhoon strikes Tokyo one night, flooding the city streets. Someone has unlawfully removed a manhole cover, and a little boy out searching for a lost pet goes missing, possibly drowned in the sewers. Is it murder or accidental? These events bring together a struggling journalist named Kosaka, who is grappling with the ghosts of his past, and two young men who may or may not have psychic powers. The three form an unwilling team not only to search for the lost boy, but also to solve a second mystery involving Kosaka's former fiance.
On the cover of THE SLEEPING DRAGON, Miyuki Miyabe is noted as Japan's Number 1 bestselling Mystery Writer, known for her ability to write strong suspense novels. Which made this particular book an interesting prospect, even allowing for the inclusion of an ESP sub-thread which isn't often something I'm particularly comfortable with.
But I am very comfortable with something that has a strong sense of place, and a strong sense of the culture that it comes from. Even allowing for the novel being translated, there remained something quintessentially Japanese about this book. Considered, subdued even, the story of THE SLEEPING DRAGON is told in a sparse, careful and thoughtful manner, particularly given the central premise of the book - whether or not a careless or even reckless act is murder, whether or not you know who did it.
The book is telling a complicated story. The disappearance of a little boy, the identification of who moved the manhole cover, their reactions and everyone's belief about culpability. The pairing of an older, life-worn journalist Kosaka, and the young psychic teenager Shinji. The relationship between Shinji and Naoya, and Naoya's struggle with his own psychic ability. Intertwined friendships, the past returning to affect the present, love lost, good and bad new relationships, and the whole catastrophe.
Despite the complications of the various sub-threads throughout the book, there is a stately progression, more than a thriller style ride. The whole book does not, however, concentrate on the "mystery" or the loss of the little boy. There are other aspects to the people within the story that frequently take centre stage. Because of that, this is not a "traditional" mystery in which a crime is committed, an investigation undertaken, and a resolution arrived at. This is a book which resolves a mystery, and looks deep into the consequences of that mystery, and to the fall out in the lives of the people involved. Within this context, the ESP sub-thread is really more about the battle that somebody with a different "gift" in life has in dealing with the consequences of that gift.
I doubt very strongly that this would be a book that dedicated fast paced thriller fans are going to find exactly their cup of tea. I suspect that fans of the crime straight through to resolution style of mystery fiction may also find it a little disappointing, but I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed THE SLEEPING DRAGON. I found the style of storytelling very engaging, the intricacies of the lives that the book looked at absorbing, the moral dilemmas raised, addressed or never resolved realistic and quite challenging. The style of the book felt Japanese to me, but the characters within the story, and the battles that they fought, essentially very human and realistic.
VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
It's January 6, 2002. The body of Yoshino, a female insurance saleswoman, is found at Mitsue Pass, an eery inland spot in the southernmost region of Japan, rumoured to be home to ghosts. A young construction worker, Yuichi, is soon arrested by the Nagasaki police on suspicion of strangling the victim.
I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to read VILLAIN, although the Japan Book News quote on the back of the book "... lays out a panorama of modern Japanese society, a patchwork composed of people of various classes and occupations..." really appealed. And the book most definitely did not disappoint.
Intricate, telling, tightly woven, tense and yet somehow languid and flowing, VILLAIN was an outstanding read. Not just because of the way that the identity of the murderer slowly creeps up on you, but also because of the way the various voices of the characters grab the reader and hold your attention. I understand from a chat with a friend of mine that the original Japanese version may have used particular dialects or very individual voices for each of the characters that clearly transmits their origins / position in society. That aspect isn't as obvious in the English version, but there are still enough elements in the style to make you realise there are differences.
VILLAIN is not a whodunnit nor is it a book about justice, revenge or resolution. It's more about the life choices that can quickly turn one person into a victim and another into a murderer. It's also a rather telling look at a lot of aspects of Japanese society - pressure on the young to conform, and how so many of those societal "norms" result in a quiet sort of despair - a longing for connection. It also shows how the stratas of society impact that. There are aspects of the life of the elderly which are held up to scrutiny as well - ultimately this is not a book which pulls much in the way of punches as it looks at the lives of most of the characters.
Whilst this book is definitely a thriller, it's a slow burning, dark and quite moving. The action is pushed along in a series of chapters told in the different voices of the characters, frequently in differing timeframes as the reader is taken backwards and forwards before the death of Yoshino and after. Yoshino, a young woman strangely lost somewhere between her daytime job as an insurance saleswoman and her night-time activities which veer closely towards a sort of casual prostitution, but always with this clanging sense of a search for love, acceptance, connection. Her background of loving, albeit marginalised parents, is contrasted strongly by that of the man she meets via an on-line dating service. Yuichi is a young man with much to resent in his life. Dumped by his mother into the care of his grandparents as a very young child, he now works in construction and struggles with the role of support to those now ailing grandparents. Yuichi's expression of individuality is all in his car, his love life as bleak and opportunistic as Yoshino. These two somehow seem to be destined, in other ways you can feel the tension as both of them struggle against the reality of their likely fates versus their ultimate desires.
An overwhelming reading experience that is really going to appeal to readers who like thoughtful, discomforting and quite confrontational reading, VILLAIN is one of those books that will stay with me.
The corpse of an unknown man is discovered under the rails of a train in a Tokyo station, and Inspector Imanishi is assigned to the case. Inspector Imanishi is a wonderfully Japanese man ... Haiku poet, gardener and the most dogged homicide detective on the Tokyo police force.
INSPECTOR IMANISHI INVESTIGATES is the first Japanese written crime / mystery book that I can remember reading for quite some time, and it must have worked as I've been tracking down other examples and other authors to try.
When an unidentified (and it soon appears) difficult to identify man is found under the rails of a Tokyo Station early one morning, he's been strangled and dumped on the rails - seemingly in an attempt to take away any further chance of identifying him when the first train of the morning ran over the corpse.
I'll admit it - I found Inspector Imanishi incredibly engaging. The style of language in the book is slightly formal - I guess partly because of the publication date (1961 for the Japanese version) and partly because it is Japanese - and they seem to be a considerably more formal people than what I'm used to. Rather than provide any form of dating for the book, it simply placed it formally in another culture - a culture considerably different from ours. There's the lovely ritual of exchanging name cards, there is the formal methods of addressing each other, there is even a formal courtesy to Imanishi's relationship with his wife which just appealed immensely.
The investigation itself proceeds very very slowly - this is 1967 after all and inquiries are frequently done in writing, in formal letters. Movement around the country is done by train, some inquiries are hampered by the destruction of records at the end of the Second World War. Sure there are some technological aspects - maybe these were glimpses forward to the technological giant that Japan has since become - but in some ways the mystery, while central to the plot, was less interesting than the characterisations, the Inspector, the food (I was consistently craving food throughout this book) and the tremendous sense of place.