Thursday, December 26, 2013

Phantom Lady

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...

Miyabe Miyuki is one of the most famous Japanese writers of fiction, with works ranging from fantasy to mystery. I haven't read much of her (actually, I think I've only read R.P.G. (released in English as Shadow Family), but her most famous work is probably Kasha ("Fire Chariot"; released in English as All She Was Worth).  Honma Shunsuke, a police detective on leave because of an incident, is asked by his deceased wife's nephew, Kazuya, to find his fiancée. He was all set to marry Sekine Shouko, but she disappeared without any trace when he discovered her credit history was tainted with bankruptcy. Honma starts his investigation for the missing fiance by finding out more about Shouko's bankruptcy in the past, but is surprised to learn that the name Sekine Shouko belongs to someone else than Kazuya's fiancée. Who is the woman who has disappeared and where is the real Sekine Shouko?

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 long 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』


  1. Thanks for the review. I bought a copy of All She Was Worth some time ago, but I see I should move it to the top of my reading list.

    But it seems to me that social (as opposed to political) commentary is one of those things that the mystery novel is particularly suited to be used for, because particular crimes tend to spring from particular types of societies. Means, motives and opportunities all tend to differ among societies. Further, crime is the point at which societies break down, so the detective novel can be used to point out and explore the fault lines in a society. If all the mystery story has to offer is the puzzle, then it is merely an entertainment, whereas potentially it has much more to offer.

    1. I admit that social commentary can add depth, but it is not what I personally seek for in mystery fiction, so at times I feel it's too obvious/heavy a theme. But it was quite popular in Japan in the 50~80s, basically crowding out the 'classic themed' detective novels. "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" (Matsumoto Seichou) is one of the major works of the movement, if you haven't read that one yet. "Points & Lines" (also Matsumoto) is closer to a classic mystery, but considered a starting point for socially concious detective novels.

      Strangely enough though, I quite enjoy sccial commentary in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series... (though that series swings heavily between pure hardboiled, puzzle plots and social commentary anyway...)

  2. i was browsing your blog for a "puppet master" review, but found none. are you planning on reading them sometimes?

    also i will encourage your translation of "ginzo ghost" on day 1 of release. hopefully i can get it through amazon kindle to enjoy it asap.

    1. I watched a TV drama adaptation of The Puppet Master some months ago, which is said to be fairly faithful to the novel, so I'll probably not read it, or at least not any time soon.

      And thanks! I hope you'll like The Ginza Ghost!