Cherchez la femme
I should have finished this book and the review last week already, but then Meiji Dantoudai and Tanteibu he no Chousenjou popped up...
Kasha is an exceptionally well-received novel. It is the highest ranking novel (fifth) in the new Tozai Mystery Best 100 (2012), that was published after the release of the original list (1985). It has been made into a TV drama twice. There is even a South-Korean movie released just last year. It's also been available in English for a long time now, and the novel is overall considered (both in the home country as outside) a fine example of the shakai-ha style of mystery: mystery novels providing social commentary.
For Honma's search for the disappeared lady touches upon aspects of Japanese society many people probably don't know about. The bubble economy. The 'normal' credit economy as well as the underworld credit world. The workings of the family register. Urbanization and anonymity in Tokyo and other large urban areas. Kasha offers explanations and criticism, usually written in a very readable format (save for an absolutely horrible explanation / lecture course on the credit economy) and if you're interested in these social problems, Kasha offers a great read, coupled with an interesting story. One might also find it interesting to read this in conjunction with that other shakai-ha classic, Matsumoto Seichou's Suna no Utsuwa ("The Sand Vessel", available in English as Inspector Imanishi Investigates"), as it offers social commentary on similar topics. The first part is also very similiar, with a search across Japan based on a single hint.
But there is a reason I don't discuss a lot of shakai-ha mystery novels here. Social commentary an sich is not that bad, but I am just more of a fan of the more fantastic and exciting, I gues. Reviews also have a tendency to... become like what I just did above; commentating on Japanese society and maybe rave about well the novel forms a mirror of modern society and how it manages to expose the cruel truth of the credit economy as well as the many flaws that exist in the Japanese family register system. Like I said in my review of Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen, I admit social conciousness plays a role in the story, and it is well done, but I don't read mystery novels just for that.
As a mystery novel, Kasha can feel a bit slow, even though there's always something going on. Honma's investigation moves at a slow, but steady pace, and Miyabe always manages to lure you into reading the next chapter, because you know something interesting will pop up. It's quite amazing how she does that for practically the whole story, considering it's a fairly novel. Yet the investigation never feels dragging. As a mystery, Kasha might lack the atmosphere of a classic style murder mystery (heck, it's a missing person's investigation), but as a mystery novel where you slowly learn more about a missing person, a novel where you piece together the background of the fiancée, where you build up a character study of "Sekine Shouko", Kasha is a good read. It will keep you And heck, I'll be the first to admit that the last half even has some good surprises in terms of a... semi-impossible situation. I won't comment more on it as it involves developments in the latter part of the story, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised with it.
Kasha is definitely not the sort of mystery I usually read, and I might attach less importance to the social commentary it offers than other people, but the mystery of "Sekine Shouko" is definitely an interesting one. It excels in characterization, and while I wouldn't name it one of the best mystery novels of all time, the captivating story will offer you a pleasant read.
And to end with some trivia: did you know that Miyabe Miyuki and Ayatsuji Yukito celebrate their birthday on the same day (December 23)?
Original Japanese title(s): 宮部みゆき 『火車』