Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates (New York: Soho Press, 1989 ). Prepare to be charmed by this classic Japanese crime novel. 4 stars
Opening sentence: The first train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line was scheduled to leave Kamata Station at 4:08 A.M.
First published in 1961, Inspector Imanishi Investigates tends to be classified as a police procedural, but although it begins by following the police investigation into the murder of a man, it soon develops into the story of Inspector Imanishi’s individual quest to solve the case, as the translated title helpfully suggests (the original Japanese title is Castle of Sand / Suna no Utsuwa).
Early in the novel, the police close their investigation into the murder due to lack of evidence, but Inspector Imanishi refuses to give up, and continues to painstakingly gather clues until the full picture of the victim’s story, and that of his murderer, emerges. In the process, one big difference between Japanese and Western police cultures is highlighted. Imanishi’s solo investigations are not viewed as the flouting of orders by his superiors, but rather as a laudable attempt to honour the victim and to do a good job as a policeman, even if that means using his own time and resources. When he uncovers important information, he reports back to his superiors as a matter of course, and the two continue to work harmoniously together. The Western maverick police detective, in conflict with his superiors and the system, is conspicuously absent.
The pace of the investigation is leisurely, with a number of dead ends: like other police procedurals of the time, such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Beck series (1965-75), the novel tries to convey the often tortuously slow progress of police work, and the grit and determination required to solve a case. Some readers might find the pace a little slow, but there’s plenty to sustain interest: clues that involve regional dialects, theories of linguistic migration, bus timetables and postcards, as well as one of the most inventive murder weapons that’s ever appeared in a crime novel. Along the way, there’s also intriguing detail about everyday Japanese life, customs, culture and food (or at least as it was circa 1961). The conversations between individuals are always impeccably courteous, measured and polite – even between the police and the criminals they are arresting.
The only aspect of the novel that grated from my (female) reading perspective was the uniformly subservient characterisation of the women. I’d be interested to know if this portrayal stemmed from the author’s own attitudes or was simply a reflection of women’s social status and role in Japanese society at the time. If the latter, then I sincerely hope things have moved along now.
One other little tidbit: the novel was turned into a film, Suna no Utsuwa, directed by Yoshitaro Nomura, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
Summary: Inspector Imanishi Investigates is an enjoyable, well-written crime novel that provides a fascinating insight into Japanese policing, and still has plenty to offer its readers fifty years after publication.
Mrs. Peabody awards Inspector Imanishi Investigates a sushi-tastic 4 stars.