A flowering of police novels

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2012/12/19 Column

A flowering of police novels

by Saku Masui

Japanese bestseller lists of recent years have been populated by a notable number of crime novels centering on police investigations. It is a commonplace of writers' handbooks that readers must never be allowed to become bored, and the timely deployment of a dead body is often recommended as a means to this end. Once this body has been arranged for, along with suitable indications of foul play, the task of solving the crime most typically falls to police investigators or private detectives. The measure of an author's skill comes in how interesting and memorable his characters are, and how knotty a mystery he can weave.

Buru mada (Blue Murder) is the newest installment in a series of novels and short stories featuring policewoman Reiko Himekawa, the previous five volumes of which have together sold over 2.4 million copies. Adaptation into a television series lit a fire under sales of the books, and a feature film based on the series is slated for release in January 2013. In this and other works, author Tetsuya Honda (1969–) has won a following for his independent-minded female cops, and with a previous multivolume work also adapted to TV, he is a hot property in the publishing and entertainment industries.

At five-foot-seven, heroine Himekawa is tall for a Japanese woman, and she possesses arresting good looks. Joining the force upon graduation from college, she rose rapidly through the ranks to become head of the murder unit in the First Criminal Investigation Section at Tokyo Metropolitan Police Headquarters by the time she was 29. Her motivation for becoming a cop is described in the first volume of the series, Sutoroberi naito (Strawberry Night, 2006), in which she investigates a gruesome murder: she was raped and nearly killed when she was 17.

Buru mada is set three and a half years after this first case. Demoted from headquarters duty, Himekawa now leads an aggravated crime unit at the Ikebukuro Police Station, with one of Tokyo's liveliest entertainment districts under its purview, when three murders take place: the victims are a yakuza boss, the leader of a violent youth gang, and a high-ranking member of the Chinese mafia. The bodies bear no gunshot wounds, but have all suffered massive bone fractures, such that they can be bent and folded at will and stuffed into a bag. As she begins her questioning, Himekawa learns that the Ikebukuro street is being terrorized by a cold-blooded murderer who wears a blue mask. Who is the "blue murderer," and how exactly is he dispatching his victims? . . .

Former newspaper journalist Shun'ichi Doba (1963?) has gained a wide following for his numerous multivolume police novel series. Among them is Anaza feisu (Another Face), with Tetsu Otomo as its policeman hero, which got its start in 2010 as a paperback original and has sold more than 600,000 copies of its first three volumes combined. The fourth volume in the series is Shoshitsusha (Vanished). Like Honda, Doba is a prolific writer who turns out new titles at a remarkably rapid clip.

Otomo works at a desk job in the Criminal Affairs Division at Tokyo Metropolitan Police Headquarters. He is a widower and single father, living with his only son Yuto; he asked to be relieved of investigative duties and given an office assignment after his beloved wife died in a traffic accident. Though he does rely on the help of his mother-in-law who lives nearby, he is determined to be a fully engaged father to his son. In each episode, he is called on for his good looks and acting talents—having been involved with amateur theater while in college, he is a master of disguise, capable of weeping at will, and has a knack for making suspects talk?to help with key aspects of the investigation.

In Shoshitsusha, Otomo is 38 and his son is 11. He is secretly tailing a 72-year-old pickpocket named Hirayama, when he sees Hirayama grab an attaché case from a passerby and take off running. Otomo follows in pursuit, but is forced to give up the chase when he sees a young man about to kill himself by jumping from a pedestrian bridge, and Hirayama gets away. Then Hirayama turns up dead, and the owner of the attaché case kills himself after going into hiding for a time. The case keeps taking unexpected turns and expanding its reach . . .

64 (Rokuyon) (64) is best-selling author Hideo Yokoyama's (1957–) first new novel in seven years, and it seems certain to land near the top of the best-mystery rankings compiled by various media outlets at the end of the year. The novel continues the author's series of stories, beginning with his 1998 debut work Kage no kisetsu (Season of Shadows; winner of the Matsumoto Seicho Prize), that center on a regional police department in the fictitious D Prefecture. Yokoyama has been credited with opening up fertile new ground in the police novel genre by focusing not on the investigators in the field but on administrative officers on desk duty at headquarters and the internal politics of the police department as an organization. 64 details a suspenseful week in which the department is shaken by the confluence of two kidnapping incidents, one new and one old.

The narrative follows the perspective of police spokesman Yoshinobu Mikami, 46. He and just three others in the Public Relations Office serve as an all-important conduit between the police department and the press club. Having worked his way up through the ranks after being recruited straight out of high school, Mikami has spent most of his career as an investigator; this is only his second stint in the PR office after a break of some two decades. The office reports to the director of police administration, a career bureaucrat appointed by the National Police Agency in Tokyo, who has been sharply at odds with the local men in Criminal Affairs. Mikami is eager to return to the investigative unit as soon as he can, but his 16-year-old daughter ran away from home three months ago, and he is looking for help from the director in order to take the search nationwide.

The story begins on December 5, 2002, when the Director-General of the NPA schedules a visit to D Prefecture one week hence. The announced purpose of his visit is to call on the victim's father in an unsolved kidnapping case from 1989—the seven-year-old girl was found dead after the kidnapper made off with the ransom—for which the statute of limitations will expire in about a year; but rumors fly that the true purpose is to put the screws on the Criminal Affairs Division. The increasingly harried Mikami must navigate the troubled waters between Police Administration and Criminal Affairs while also answering to the clamoring press. Then, in what appears to a copycat crime, a high-school girl is kidnapped. Also bringing into the picture Mikami's relationship with his wife, who is herself a former police officer, the author offers readers a vivid and intricate psychological portrayal of a mid-level police administrator caught in the vortex of complex forces spinning out of control.

Readers today appear to find more realism in police detectives who put their lives on the line against evildoers than in wizard-like private eyes who solve crimes in brilliant flashes of reasoning. I am suddenly reminded of Jack the Ripper, who terrorized the city of London at the end of the 19th century. In the decades since World War II, Japan has experienced a miraculous recovery and a period of unprecedented economic growth, only to find itself now in the shadows of a setting sun. Although reported arrest rates suggest crime is edging up, it's not as if there's been a noticeable rise in violent offenses. Yet readers bored with the humdrum of their real lives are apparently turning to crime novels in their search for something more "interesting" to spice up their world. For those interested in a Japanese-British comparison of such things, I strongly recommend British author David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero (2007) and its sequel Occupied City (2012), set in Tokyo during the postwar Allied occupation of Japan. 

Buru mada (Blue Murder)
by Tetsuya Honda
Kobunsha, 2012, 436 pp., ISBN 978-4-334-92855-1

Shoshitsusha: Anaza feisu 4 (Vanished: Another Face 4)
by Shun'ichi Doba
Bungeishunju, 2012, 426 pp., ISBN 978-4-16-778705-9 (paper)

64 (Rokuyon) (64)
by Hideo Yokoyama
Bungeishunju, 2012, 647 pp., ISBN 978-4-16-381840-5

Saku Masui (1967–) was born in Kobe and graduated from Kyoto University. In 1991 he joined The Nikkei, Japan's leading economic daily, where he reported on business and stock market developments for a time before transferring to the cultural pages to take charge of book reviews and editorial duty for the serialized novels published in the paper. He left in 2004 to work for a publisher, and has since gone independent as a freelance writer and editor. He also teaches creative writing classes.