Fine untangling

Lead review

Fine untangling

This Japanese crime phenomenon is now a bestseller in the UK, with dozens of glowing testimonials regarding its brilliance. This complex novel revolves around many, many things.

Numerous characters appear and reappear in the course of multiple threads of unfolding action. Some of them surface briefly to dangle yet another teaser, only to fade away as diversions from the core mystery. Below, in brief, are the main threads of this complex tale.

Police officer Mikami and his former police officer wife Minako’s private world is falling apart. Their only child, Ayumi, a teenaged girl obsessed with her perceived ugly face, leaves home and vanishes. The entire country’s police force are on the lookout for one of their own, but the hope of Ayumi’s return diminishes.

Small industrialist Amamiya’s only child, seven-year-old daughter Shoko, was  kidnapped in 1989, and found murdered. Even after 14 years, this case, referred to as ‘Six Four’, remains unsolved. Mikami and Minako had briefly taken part in the initial investigations at that time.

Mikami currently looks after Press Relations. Press meetings are like battlefields, with day and night-long sieges. The press actually make one police official have a breakdown while he is fielding their relentless and hostile barrage of questions. The press want all the facts and details of cases immediately. The police try to conceal certain points, ostensibly for the safety of the victims of crime, but sometimes also to shield their own shortcomings in handling the case.

With the press threatening to boycott coverage, Mikami has to get the obviously disenchanted Amamiya’s consent for a meeting with a top police official from Tokyo. This seems a police PR exercise for a case which is all but dead.

Meanwhile, inter-department rivalries and intrigues drive twisted tentacles into the police force. “It was Administrative Affairs that had set out on the offensive. On orders from Akama, Futawatari was digging around Criminal Investigation’s weak spots. His sights were set on Six Four. In his hands, he held a card called the Koda Memo. What was it?” A 100-odd pages later, after other threads are expanded, the novel again returns to Futawatari and the Koda Memo.

There is no progress yet on this front. “The mystery of Futawatari expanded to take over (Mikami’s) thoughts. Futawatari knew something he wasn’t supposed to have heard about. He was discussing something it was taboo to speak of... Futawatari was doing something without realising the risk, No. It was unthinkable.” Spoiler warning! Some of the sub-mysteries don’t get clearly resolved.

The novel’s plus points are many. Brief descriptive passages bring the settings to life. “The Kotohira Bridge, pale, nebulous in the glare of the mercury lamps,” makes a perfect setting for a crime committed in the hilly regions of rural Japan.

The major characters are well delineated and convincing. Amamiya’s “expression had been completely devoid of hope, no longer believing in anything. Amamiya hadn’t been robbed of a feeling or an idea. He had suffered the physical loss of the thing he loved most. Distinctions such as Showa or Heisei meant nothing to him. His only fate was to drift through a world in which his daughter didn’t exist.” Such passages, and others describing the changing dynamics of Mikami and Minako’s conjugal relationship, probe the psyche of characters deeper than the average crime novel.

Jonathan Lloyd-Davies does an admirable job of translating this long novel from Japanese to English. It reads smoothly, without noticeable jolts.

However much a book may appeal to critics and the readers who make it into a bestseller, not even the best books are for everyone. Each reader has his or her own tastes and preferences. I found the story too slow and convoluted. Dozens of characters, often with similar names, made the novel an effort to follow. The book has a helpful table of its numerous characters, possibly anticipating such difficulties among readers. Figuring out the relationships and intrigues between Mutsuko, Matsuota and Masato, and Mikami, Minako and Mikumo, and then again, reporters with names like Yanase and Yanasima, can get tedious even with the helpful table.

Possibly due to cultural conditioning, and definitely due to my lack of comprehension, the threat of sequestering the director’s post in the police did not seem so terrible or shocking. Apparent cover-ups regarding a death in police custody, and of the failure of a police official to tap a phone call in time, also did not shock or awe me as much as they were meant to.

Another factor making the read laborious for me were the many subplots, intrigues and mysteries. Some of these are red herrings deftly placed to complicate the mystery. The unsolved kidnap-murder case Six Four; a bid rigging charge being hushed up; inter-departmental intrigues within the police; Ayumi’s disappearance; a police custody death also being hushed up; the mysterious Koda Memo; the intrigues and undercurrents among the reporters of over 12 papers and TV channels; Futawatari’s quest; the disappearance of police officials Koda and Hiyoshi, who were initially involved with case Six Four; all these and more mysteries intertwining in one book, overwhelmed me. The mysteries do unfold towards the end in an interesting way. This book will reward die-hard mystery buffs patient enough to wade through 600-plus meandering pages.

Six Four
Hideo Yokoyama, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
2016, pp 635, Rs 499

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