Shigeo Segawa had been a successful stock trader for several years before disgracing himself when he was caught trading with company money. After trying to strike out on business on his own and failing we find him at the novel’s start working for his family business making a tenth of his former salary.
By chance he runs into an old acquaintance who tells him about a job opportunity that she had heard about. She sets up an appointment with what seems to be a fledgling company selling massage machines to executives. His meeting goes well and he receives a job offer with far more lucrative terms than he would expect and accepts, albeit with some reservations. Soon he learns that his position will not just be selling those machines but that he has been hired to carry out an act of industrial espionage.
This is my first experience reading anything by Akimitsu Takagi, a fairly prolific Japanese author of the post-war period and I came to it with relatively little knowledge of the type of story I would be reading.
The tone and storytelling in the opening chapters seems to indicate that we will be experiencing an inverted or psychological crime story as the reader anticipates everything going wrong. One review I read compared the themes and style of the first third of the novel to Mamet’s work which is an observation I wish I could claim was my own. At the point that everything goes wrong our point of perspective shifts to that of Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, one of Takagi’s series characters, who is tasked with investigating a murder and we realize that while what we have read will help us identify the killer, it is probably not going to be Shigeo.
Rather than trying to categorize the story by its storytelling style, I think this is better addressed in terms of its thematic discussion. The Informer is a story that addresses the changing nature of Japanese business and the values associated with that in the post-war period. In this sense it reminds me a lot of some of Kurosawa’s more cynical, modern dramas that would portray figures you would expect to be respectable as verging on degeneracy such as his Drunken Angel.
This is reflected in the cast of characters Takagi creates who might be described as varying dark shades of gray. There are numerous instances of what would have been regarded as sexual immorality and adultery, financial malpractice as well as manipulation and coercion. There are several instances in the novel where characters voice a lack of respect for the older generation which implies a broader cultural degeneracy infiltrating the workplace. Even the victim is hard to sympathize with if we can believe some of the information his wife’s sister shares with Shigeo.
The novel also evokes a strong sense of place and time, giving Takagi’s view of the business world of this time. Industrial espionage is rife with companies seeking any advantage they can find in a difficult economy. There are still hints of an older, highly paternalistic culture however that comes through in the way an employer seeks to protect the interests of one of his employees suggesting that this is Japan in transition. If you enjoy social history or reading about other cultures then you may well find these aspects of the book to be quite compelling.
Turning back to the mystery plot itself, I spent a good portion of the book absolutely certain of who must be responsible only to feel quite ridiculous when the final reveal comes. This reflects that the plot makes a certain amount of sense, though be prepared for the discussion of what happened to feel a little abrupt. Also, the fate of a key character is left unresolved so be prepared if you must have total closure! This may not be for you.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this work though is the writer’s ability to evoke psychology and put the reader in the head of his key characters as they process the situations they find themselves in and react. While this is a third person narrative, we get to share in Shigeo’s understanding of what is happening to him and follow his emotional reactions and reasoning as he makes his decisions. We are never left wondering why he responds the way he does, even when it causes more trouble for him, and I was anxious to know whether Saburo would catch the killer and how it would all be resolved for Shigeo.
The result is a novel that I felt made for fascinating reading although it is more of a suspense novel than a detective story. The setting is striking and the book conveyed a strong sense of time, place and culture. The circumstances of the crime are intriguing though I will say that the question of mechanics is not considered at all by either detective or writer. It made for a striking first impression of Akimitsu Takagi’s work, though I am disappointed to discover that only two of his other books were ever translated into English so unless someone goes ahead and starts commissioning some more I’ll never be able to read them myself.