Originally published in 1961 as 砂の器 (Suna no utsuwa)
English translation first published in 1989
In the wee hours of a 1960s Tokyo morning, a dead body is found under the rails of a train, and the victim’s face is so badly damaged that police have a hard time figuring out the victim’s identity. Only two clues surface: an old man, overheard talking in a distinctive accent to a young man, and the word “kameda.” Inspector Imanishi leaves his beloved bonsai and his haiku and goes off to investigate—and runs up against a blank wall. Months pass in fruitless questioning, in following up leads, until the case is closed, unsolved.
But Imanishi is dissatisfied, and a series of coincidences lead him back to the case. Why did a young woman scatter pieces of white paper out of the window of a train? Why did a bar girl leave for home right after Imanishi spoke to her? Why did an actor, on the verge of telling Imanishi something important, drop dead of a heart attack? What can a group of nouveau young artists possibly have to do with the murder of a quiet and “saintly” provincial old ex-policemen? Inspector Imanishi investigates.
Seichō Matsumoto was one of the most popular and prolific Japanese mystery authors of the postwar period, publishing more than 450 works in a 40 year period. Only a tiny fraction of that work has been translated into English however including the wonderful A Quiet Place which was released a couple of years ago. This work, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, is one of his most popular detective stories and has had several film and television adaptations.
The book begins with the discovery of a body of a man on the tracks in front of a train minutes before it should depart from the station. The man had been strangled and there was considerable damage already to the head after death. This is taken to indicate that either the murderer was acting out of extreme hatred or that they wished to disguise the identity of the corpse.
Inspector Imanishi is part of a team that is assigned to the case and they start by trying to work to identify the body. This proves much harder than anticipated however as while they are able to trace the victim to a bar, they receive little detail about him other than his being older, talking in a distinctive accent to another unidentified man and that he was heard to say the word “kameda”. After some considerable effort the case seems to have gone cold but Imanishi continues to work on it in his spare time, assembling a picture of what happened on the night of the murder.
This work can be categorized as a police procedural meaning that there is a focus on realism by attempting to reproduce the feel and flow of actual police work. In this type of fiction, detectives spend their time methodically chasing down leads and attempting to piece together information to explain events. Some stories are presented as puzzle plots by reconciling evidence and testimonies but some, such as this novel, are much broader in scope and involve trying to generate that evidence when there are close to no leads at all.
What this means in practice is that our detective, Inspector Imanishi, spends a substantial part of the novel appearing to chase dead ends. This gives the piece a much slower pace than many other types of detective story and can lead to a feeling that not much is happening, particularly given that we are over a quarter of the way into the novel before we have even identified the body, let alone found anyone to suspect of the murder. I would suggest that it reflects that for Matsumoto the interaction of case and detective, particularly the sense of responsibility felt by the detective to solve it and provide closure to the family, is as important as the specific details of that case.
Inspector Imanishi is a fairly quiet and reserved character who is presented as both thoughtful and sincere. His most distinctive characteristic is his love of writing haiku and at several points within this story we get to read his reflections on ideas and images that have inspired him rendered in such verse. This does contribute to the somewhat slow, methodical approach to storytelling we see throughout this novel but it is not just a quirky trait – rather I think it does say something about his character, his values and quite specifically on the way he percieves his role in this investigation and within society.
This trait, along with some other habits and characteristics (enjoying green tea poured over rice and raising bonsai trees), also serves to establish the character as rooted in a sense of Japanese traditionalism that will contrast with the more Western-focused outlooks expressed by several of the characters he encounters in the story. Those characters, who we encounter very early in the novel, are part of a glitzy intellectual movement that is dubbed the Nouveau Group that is portrayed as a successor movement to the Shirakaba-ha (White Birch Society), a Japanese literary movement that had sought to bring ideas from western art and culture into Japanese society in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The contrast between these two outlooks is hardly explosive nor is it really the point of the book but I feel it does produce an interesting contrast that helps define both Imanishi and the characters he is interacting with more clearly.
The other strength of this novel is its strong sense of place. While the travel in this story is not extensive, we do get to follow Imanishi as he ventures away from Tokyo into the countryside on a couple of occasions. This prompts some explorations of the different pace of life in rural Japan as well as some of the regional differences within Japan. Occasionally that can get a little technical, particularly when it comes to discussions of various accents which plays a small but important role in the plot, but I found it to be interesting and appreciated the focus on some issues I hadn’t encountered before in the translated Japanese mysteries I have read.
There are also some quite inventive ideas at play in this novel including a means of murder that I have never encountered before which does add some further interest. That certainly adds a degree of novelty to the story and helped me to understand why it stood out as a candidate for translation.
While most of the key points are clued, I think the reader is unlikely to be ahead of the detective at any point in the story both in terms of the main problem but also some of the smaller questions that are asked along the way. To give an example, there is a point where an explanation is needed for why a character returned to a particular location. It’s fascinating to follow Imanishi as he does the legwork to answer that problem but I cannot see any way the reader could have known what the answer to that was other than to make an educated guess about what the significance of that information must be.
For that reason I think that this book, while often very interesting, may disappoint those hoping to play armchair detective and match wits with the writer. Personally I enjoyed it, though not as much as A Quiet Place. Still, it is a clever procedural that, in addition to setting up a memorable crime, thoughtfully explores the changes taking place in Japanese society at the time. That, for me, makes it worth a look.
The Verdict: A very competent, if leisurely-paced, police procedural. As interesting for the issues it discusses as the case itself.
I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Malicious Men category as a Silver Age read.