Book lists, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting

6 gripping crime fiction reads from Japan

The crime genre is often accused of being formulaic and cliched, but the handful of Japanese crime novels that I have read tend to shun the usual conventions. In these well crafted stories we often know who has committed the crime. Sometimes we even know how they did it. And occasionally we know why.

Japanese crime writers, it seems, are more interested in looking at the circumstances surrounding a crime, the impact of the crime on victims, friends, family, investigators and even the accused, and  what these crimes say about society at large. I find them wholly fascinating and know that whenever I pick up a Japanese crime novel I’m going to read something entertaining as well as intelligent.

As with most Japanese fiction, these novels are generally written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style, which only adds to the chilling nature of the stories.

Here’s a handful of Japanese crime novels that I can recommend, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

 

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino is a master crime writer whose tales turn the genre on its head. I have read several (all reviewed here) but The Devotion of Suspect X is my favourite. In this extraordinary crime thriller, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps that have been taken to protect the real murderer. The story is effectively one giant riddle; the reader must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, mindful that the real clues have been mixed in with red herrings! It’s a brilliantly gripping read — and turned me into a Higashino fan.

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino

I read Out many years ago (sadly it’s not reviewed on this blog), but the story — of a group of women who help a colleague get rid of the body of the philandering husband she has murdered — is another Japanese crime novel that turns the genre on the head. Yes, we know who committed the crime and we know all the women who become accessories after the fact, we even understand why and how the murder was carried out. But what we don’t know is whether the perpetrators will get away with it and whether one of them will say or do the wrong thing to give the game away. It’s a real nailbiting novel, but it’s also an insightful one about misogyny, domestic violence and the Japanese working class.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

This dark novel is a revenge story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands with devastating and gruesome consequences. It focuses on a grief-stricken school teacher, who accuses two of her students of having murdered her daughter. She doesn’t name the students but drops enough clues that everyone knows who she is pointing the finger at. She then avenges the crime, but this does not bring peace: it simply begats more crime so that a dizzying dark spiral of events unfolds, sucking people into its deadly centre. It’s a terrifying novel but it deals with big themes, including how we teach children right from wrong, how society deals with child criminals and what barriers there should be between teachers and their students. It’s a thought-provoking read.

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

The central focus of The Aosawa Murders is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The book, which has a complex structure featuring multiple view points and time frames, is about the long-lasting impact of the crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well and the local community. There’s no neat ending, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a marked impression as the reader tries to process what happened and why.

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

This prize-winning novella is told from the point of view of a man who makes his living by petty theft. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system. But he isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective. This isn’t a story about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s mind which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. It’s an intriguing conceit.

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

This book looks at the outfall of the murder of a young woman on a series of characters, including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused, and shows how they adjust to their changed circumstances. So while there is a crime at the heart of this novel, it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it. Again, it’s another fascinating examination of the sociological and psychological impact of a crime on a community.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Can you recommend any other crime books from Japan that are worth reading?

10 books, Book lists

10 of my favourite books by women writers in translation

August is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation, which is now in its sixth year.

This year it is slightly different. Blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, is hoping to build a new canon by curating a list of the 100 best books by women writers in translation. She’s invited readers, bloggers, book fans, publishers, translators, editors and writers — in fact, anyone who loves books — to nominate up to 10 titles by women who write in any language other than English. (You can find out more about that here.)

I thought I would contribute to this exercise with the following list. Note that some of these titles have previously appeared in a list of 5 books for Women in Translation month that I compiled in 2016, so apologies for any duplication. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
An evocative, melancholy novel — set in Indochina in 1929 — about a young French girl’s affair with a South Vietnamese man 12 years her senior.


‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
Deeply affecting and brutally honest memoir about the author’s mother and the sometimes-strained relationship they shared.

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
A “whydunnit” that looks at what happens when three young men go on a weekend camping trip but only two of them come back.

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten
A touching and compelling portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over.

Soviet Milk
‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena
Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis
A powerful novella that explores motherhood, the freedom to pursue your calling and life under Soviet rule.

The Party Wall
The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux
Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler
Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize, this is a complex, multi-layered and exhilarating story about identity and self-discovery, with a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.


‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
A dark revenge tale about a teacher who takes the law into her own hands and dishes out cruel and unusual punishment to the students she thinks killed her daughter.


‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Charming and heartfelt story about a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Profoundly moving novella about a single mother with no money who takes her young children to the seaside for a short vacation — with tragic consequences.


‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
A deceptively simple story — about a delayed celebratory dinner — that morphs into a complex portrait of a tyrannical man with an unrealistic expectation of family life but is actually a metaphor for East and West Germany.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth? Which 10 books would you recommend?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Penance’ by Kanae Minato

Penance

Fiction – paperback; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

A few years ago I read Kanae Minato’s debut novel Confessions about a teacher who accuses two of her pupils of a terrible crime, then seeks vengeance on them. It was a compelling read, but incredibly dark — and it didn’t exactly chime well with my moral compass.

Penance is Minato’s second novel. It charts similar territory but isn’t quite as dark. It still deals with the notion of vengeance and murder, and posits the idea that if you’re a witness in a crime case but can’t remember crucial details that may help catch the culprit, then you’re not much better than the criminal who carried out the act.

It’s the kind of story that throws up lots of questions about moral culpability, justice and retribution, and it makes for yet another compelling read.

Murder of a young girl

The book pivots around one central act: the murder of a 10-year-old school girl in rural Japan. Her four friends — Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko — are with her when a stranger approaches them and asks for help.

Civic-minded Emily goes off with him, leaving her friends behind. She is never seen alive again.

The surviving girls, horrified by what has happened, cannot recall the face of the stranger and offer little in the way of detail that might help track him down.

A couple of years later Emily’s mother, half demented by grief, needs someone to blame. She approaches the girls with an ultimatium: if they do not find the murderer they must atone for their crimes, otherwise she will have her revenge on them.

Mosaic structure

The novel is divided into six chapters. Each character — Emily, her four friends (now in their mid-20s) and Emily’s mother — get their turn to tell their story. Not only do we hear their different viewpoints about what happened on the day of the murder, we learn how the murder impacted the rest of their lives. This does mean that some events are hashed over again and again, but this repetition doesn’t detract from the overall narrative: it simply allows you to see how different people interpret the same event in different ways.

To complicate matters further, each chapter is told in a different style — for instance, one takes the form of a letter to Emily’s mother, another is a confession to a counsellor — which can make Penance feel less like a novel and more like a collection of short stories.

But the overall effect works. Minato weaves a deft tapestry of human emotions, motivations and contradictions. And in her stripped back, almost limpid prose, she’s able to show how different personalities not only react to a single event in different ways, but she expertly charts how the girls’ lives and career paths veer off in different directions in the years following Emily’s death. This makes for a powerful read.

A crime novel with a difference

Perhaps the book’s main failing is its slide into becoming ludicrous — it’s difficult to elaborate without giving away spoilers. But let’s just say the ways in which the girls atone for not catching Emily’s murderer lead them to carry out their own devastating acts with long-lasting repercussions on other people.

Penance is not your typical crime novel. The murderer himself is almost incidental to the story: it’s not about who did it, but what happens to those who survive. A subsidiary narrative thread that runs throughout each of the girl’s individual stories fleshes out the idea that we are all capable of hideous acts if the circumstances are right.

It’s not quite as brilliant as Confessions, but this is an intriguing read if you’re looking for something a little different.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

Confessions

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Japanese do a nice line in dark fiction, whether crime or otherwise — think Keigo HigashinoShuichi YoshidaFuminori NakamuraNatsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa, to name just a handful.

Kanae Minato’s debut novel, Confessions, is no exception. This revenge tale, set in a middle school in a small town, explores issues relating to morality, justice and child crime. It’s a cracking story about adolescence gone wrong, with lots of unexpected plot twists and horrifying outcomes, but it’s probably one of the darkest books I’ve read in quite awhile.

And having read it back-to-back with another dark story of vengeance — Harriet Lane’s Her — I think that’s my quota of malicious tales done for the year.

Teacher seeks vengeance

The book opens with a grief-stricken schoolteacher, Yuko Moriguchi, addressing the pupils in her class on the last day of her teaching career — she’s decided to retire following the untimely death of her beloved four-year-old daughter, who was found drowned in the school’s swimming pool.

What begins as a relatively pleasant farewell speech descends into a bitter diatribe in which she accuses two of her students of murdering her daughter. She doesn’t name them, but they can be clearly identified by the things she says.

Because the age of criminal responsibility in Japan is 14 and the accused are just 13, Moriguchi decides to take the law into her own hands and dishes out her own form of justice. It turns out to be a rather cruel and unusual punishment — in fact, it’s downright jaw-droppingly horrific.

From this one act of vengeance, things slowly spiral out of control and by the book’s end there is at least one other person dead and another locked away in an asylum — which begs the question: would the outcomes have been any better under the normal channels of justice?

Five different perspectives

The book is structured around six longish chapters, the first and last of which are told from the teacher’s perspective. The intervening chapters are told from other character’s points of view, so that we get to hear from each of the accused, student A and student B; the mother of student B; and the class president.

While this means some scenes are retold over and over again — how the body was discovered, for instance —  the new perspectives help deliver new insights into how others are affected by events. Their reactions and their motivations aren’t always predictable — sometimes they’re simply terrifying.

It’s written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style typical of modern Japanese fiction, which only adds to the chilling nature of the storyline.

Big themes

And while it could be described as a quiet and understated novel, it deals with some surprisingly big themes — How do you teach children right from wrong? How should society deal with child criminals?  What barriers should there be between teachers and their students?

It depicts a society falling apart at the seams, where children either seek fame and glory by committing the most horrendous crimes or they drop out of society altogether by locking themselves away to become hikikomori (“shut-ins”). It paints a rather bleak picture of modern Japan. It’s not cheerful reading by any stretch of the imagination — the morality of many of the characters is dubious at best.

However, as a page turner that treads spine-chilling territory based on the twisted behaviour of a handful of deliciously dark characters, it’s rather superb. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: according to the “About the Author” page in my edition, Confessions has sold more than three million copies in Japan and has won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers and the National Booksellers’ Award. In 2009 it was adapted into a film directed by Tetsuya Nakashima.