Crime novels fascinate me. The mechanisms are far more interesting than in other genres, I have to admit, even fantasy fiction, perhaps because the mechanisms are vital to the success of the novel. Within reasonably limited conventions – a murder, someone must solve it – comes a huge number of subtleties, approaches, deceptions, which keep the reader on his or her toes. The frustration to solve the puzzle within is a great narrative engine. It also requires a huge amount of complex planning on the author’s part; this isn’t something that can be churned out, James Patterson aside.
Inspector Imanishi Investigates is set in 1960s Tokyo, where the post-war young find themselves entranced by young musicians, actors and writers. The assiduous middle-aged Inspector Imanishi, someone not in tune with the affairs of the young, finds himself trying to solve a case in which a man in his 50s is found bludgeoned to death on the railway tracks. There are next to no clues other than that a few witnesses state the victim was thought to be talking to a man with a strange regional dialect. Imanishi needs to discover the identity of both the victim as well as the murderer, which seems practically impossible at the start.
He ends up trekking to various parts of Japan, obscure districts that require long, late train journeys, following leads that turn out, at first, to be futile. But it is the act of investigation that maps out the difficult case: the process of elimination starts to carve a possible reality from the confusion. Presently Imanishi discovers that the victim was a popular policeman, now retired, from a distant province, and he then becomes drawn to the Nouveau Group, an enigmatic, popular and influential group of writers, musicians and artists.
Imanishi’s investigations become something of a personal quest. Though drawn out over some time, and occasionally – due to frustrations with the case and the nature of police work – fading from priority, it is clear that he’s on to something. There are a spectacular number of what you initially think are red-herrings, but which turn out to be crucial clues and plot-points, and the further Imanishi explores the narrative, the more complex and subtle – and thrilling – it becomes. The novel continues at a relaxed pace, the prose – self-consciously minimalist, understated, noir – is an effective vehicle in permitting the plot’s complexities to stand out. Imanishi’s family life is again kept to the bare minimum, perhaps testament to his assiduousness and diligence in dealing with the case.
As with all my favourite crime novels, the investigations spotlight the concerns of a particular country, and Matsumoto does a splendid job in controlling the mood and atmosphere, both from city to rural locations. It’s a great book; subtle, under-stated and smart, however, it’s probably not for everyone.