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Inspector Imanishi Investigates, Seicho Matsumoto; translated by Beth Cary
SOHO Crime, Trade Paper, 2003
First Sentence: "The first train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line was scheduled to leave Kamata Station at 4:08 A.M."
Before departure, the crew inspected the train for safety and anything untoward. They found untoward: a dead body under one of the cars. The police arrive, and on page 2, the autopsy report presents the findings: male, middle-fifties, death by strangulation and post-death, a beating of the face with a rock or hammer.
The victim had been drinking, so the police canvassed the bars around Kamata Station for possible witnesses. The workers at Torys bar, nearby Kamata Station, remembered seeing the victim with a younger male companion. They all agreed on one thing: the victim spoke with an accent of the Tohoku region, a dialect with thick zu-zu sounds, and he repeated the word “Kameda” several times. It must be a person’s name, the police decided, only to find out that there were thousands of Kamedas in the northern prefectures (similar to provinces). Identifying the body, as well as the murderer, was not going to be easy.
I will stop describing the story line because everything I have written so far happens in the first 13-page chapter. By comparison, a U.S. or U.K. police procedural might easily take half the book to get this far. I found this method of wrapping up the preliminaries in a few pages more than refreshing.
There were still 300 pages left in the book, however, so what took up the space? Already declared a dead case in the first chapter, enter Tokyo police Inspector Imanishi Eitaro (surname first, given name second) to solve it.
Anyone who is familiar with Magdalen Nabb’s excellent series featuring Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Italian Carabinieri will immediately relate to Imanishi. Both men cannot leave an unsolved crime go unsolved. Their lives revolve around the case, they dig incessantly for the tiniest shred of a clue, and they never cease . . . thinking.
While there were plenty of twists, turns, and especially dead ends for Imanishi, he had an advantage over Guarnaccia: coincidence. The first one is in my story description about finding witnesses close to Kamata Station—which the police do. There were subsequent murders in the book; one victim lived in the apartment building next to Imanishi, while another rented a room from his sister. While waiting at a small train depot in Akita Prefecture, Imanishi meets four young intellectuals known as the Nouveau group, who play a large part throughout the book.
While I found this a little annoying, it did not ruin my enthusiasm for the book. Keeping track of names, prefectures, cities, towns, and railway stations was a challenge, so I kept some notes and printed a map of Japan.
Written in 1961, Seicho is as fresh and relevant today as he was then. The translation by Beth Cary is skillful, avoiding the use of Western slang and euphemisms.
Best of all, though, was the modus operandi of the killer, so unique that I have never read anything even close to it. I recommend this book to anyone who likes a well-written, complex mystery, a lot of sleuthing, and a very likeable protagonist.