Double celebration…and wishing you a Happy 2012!

Today Mrs P. celebrates not falling over while ice-skating¬†and reaching the milestone of 70,000 hits on the Mrs. Peabody Investigates blog ūüôā

To close out the year, here are two lists:¬†5¬†popular¬†Mrs P. posts from the 60 published in 2011, and Mrs Peabody’s top 5 reads of the year.

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5 of the most popular Mrs P. posts of 2011:

1. BBC4’s The Killing Series 1¬†[Danish crime TV]

This was the first of a number of Mrs P. posts¬†on¬†the Danish¬†drama Forbrydelsen, whose instant¬†popularity took everyone by surprise (not least BBC4). If you haven’t seen it yet, make doing so one of your¬†resolutions for 2012. Outstanding.

2. BBC1’s Zen¬†[British / Italian crime TV]

My review of the TV¬†series based on Michael Dibdin’s ‘Aurelio Zen’ novels, starring the delectable Rufus Sewell.¬†The BBC, somewhat oddly, decided not to commission a second series.

ZEN (high res)

3. Crime novels that make you want to rant: Philip Kerr’s Field Grey¬†[British / German crime fiction]

This was a¬†lament or¬†a rant, depending on your point of view, which examined Philip Kerr’s seventh Bernie Gunther novel in the context of the previous six books in the series. The eighth, Prague Fatale,¬†which I have yet to read, was released in October 2011.

4. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy¬†[Danish crime fiction]

A review of one of my standout novels of the year, and the first in this Danish author’s Department Q series. The second, Disgrace,¬†is due out with Penguin in June 2012.

jacket image for Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen - large version

5. Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates¬†[Japanese crime fiction]

This was one of my early posts, and remains a favourite Рa review of a Japanese classic from 1961, which still holds up extremely well today.

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Mrs Peabody’s top 5 reads of 2011 (in alphabetical order as I can’t bring myself to rank them):

1. Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mercy (2011 [first published in 2008])

Danish. A bravura start to the Department Q series: powerful, gripping and moving in equal measure. Features a strong and compelling female protagonist  5 stars

jacket image for Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen - large version

2. Jan Costin Wagner, Silence (2011 [2007])

German author / Finnish setting. The second novel in the Kimmo Joentaa series. An absorbing police procedural and a sensitive portrayal of grief  5 stars

3. Sam Hawken, The Dead Women of Juárez (2011)

American. An outstanding crime novel¬†set in the corrupt Mexican border city of Ju√°rez,¬†infamous for¬†its high rate of ‚Äėfeminicidios‚Äô (female homicides) 5 stars¬†¬†

4. Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack (2010 [2006])

Argentinian. An excellent crime novel, which paints a searing portrait of 1970s Argentina under military rule  5 stars

5. Shuichi Yoshida, Villain (2011 [2007])

Japanese. A gripping dissection of a murder and its repercussions  5 stars

*****

Many thanks to everyone for reading and –¬†most importantly –¬†for contributing in such an illuminating and generous way to the discussions on this blog¬†in 2011.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year and all the very best for 2012!

#13 Shuichi Yoshida / Villain

Shuichi Yoshida, Villain, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (London: Vintage 2011 [2007]). A gripping dissection of a murder and its repercussions  5 stars

Opening sentence: Route 263 runs north and south some forty-eight kilometers, connecting Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures and straddling Mitsuse Pass in the Sefuri mountain range.

The last Japanese crime novel I reviewed was Inspector Imanishi Investigates, an engaging police procedural published in 1961. By contrast,¬†Shuichi Yoshida, author of the 2007 novel Villain, opts not to¬†foreground the activities of the police or the private detective when tracing the story of this crime. Instead, ordinary individuals, who’ve unexpectedly found their lives shaken by the murder of a young woman, are placed centre stage, while the police investigation ¬†progresses quietly behind the scenes. This¬†creates a crime novel with an impressive difference, showing us how the ripples from a murder move outwards¬†and impact on a variety of people. As well as dissecting the effect that the crime has on the victim‚Äôs and murderer‚Äôs¬†families, and on friends and workmates, the novel provides us with in-depth portraits of Yoshino Ishibashi and her killer, and a complex analysis of the circumstances leading to the murder on the desolate mountain road of Mituse Pass.

The identity of the murderer is only confirmed towards the end of the text, and readers are invited to reflect on the extent to which he is indeed a ‚Äėvillain‚Äô, or whether the contributory actions of others, and the social circumstances in which he was raised should also be viewed as ‚Äėvillainous‚Äô. The narrative‚Äôs sympathies never tip over into an apology for the murderer‚Äôs actions, but there is an attempt to move away from a knee-jerk characterisation of the murderer as monster, to a more nuanced understanding¬†of his crime.

One aspect of the novel I particularly liked was the almost complete absence of melodrama. The writing style is spare and matter-of-fact, homing in on ordinary details, such as a grandmother eating a pickled plum, or a shop-assistant reflecting on the difference between expensive designer shirts and the ones she has to sell. The emphasis on everyday experiences that readers will recognise (whether they are Japanese or not), brings this story closer to real life than is often the case, and makes it all the more unsettling: this is a recognisable world populated by recognisable individuals.

That having been said, the story is also very much of its time and place –¬†contemporary Japan –¬†and paints a largely unflattering picture of Japanese society, especially in relation to the issue of class. There are a lot of unhappy¬†people in this book, and a sense of individual entrapment comes over very strongly in the depiction of a number of¬†characters.

Villain has won the prestigious Japanese Osaragi Jiro Prize. The film adaptation, directed by Lee Sang-Il, appeared in 2010 and received mixed reviews.

One last observation: the back cover of the novel contains the by now almost inevitable, lazy comparison to Stieg Larsson, in the shape of a quote from a New Yorker review.

For the record, aside from the fact that it’s a crime novel and contains some social critique, Villain bears no obvious resemblance to Stieg Larsson’s works. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, but simply as a statement of fact. Villain is the in-depth study of one crime, while the Millennium Trilogy explores a number of crimes; Villain examines the lives of individuals dealing with the immediate aftermath of a murder, with the police operating in the background, while the Millennium Trilogy explores the long-term effect of past crimes and foregrounds the investigative activities of Blomkvist and Salander; Villain’s dominant themes are class and patterns of cause and effect, Millennium’s are misogyny and power. And stylistically, the novels are as different as can be.

Mrs. Peabody awards Villain an impressive 5 stars.

#2 Matsumoto/Inspector Imanishi Investigates

Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates (New York: Soho Press, 1989 [1961]). 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 Sj√∂wall and Wahl√∂√∂‚Äôs 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.

Suna no utsuwa

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.