Thursday, February 16, 2017

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

riverrun books, 2017
translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
643 pp


Let's just get this out of the way -- Six Four is not an average thriller, nor is it an average police procedural; there are no kick-ass heroines or scenes of over-the-top violence to be found anywhere in this book.  I finished it in one go in a major overnight, insomnia-fueled reading session and my reaction was this: hooray (!) for something new, something delightfully different, and above all, for an intelligent mystery novel that goes well beyond the standard crime fiction fare -- in short, the sort of thing I crave but don't find much in modern mysteries and crime these days.

Set in 2002, Six Four is the story of Mikami, the director of Media Relations in the police department in D Prefecture.  He used to work as a detective and was on the team investigating the kidnapping and later the death of Shoko, a little girl back in 1989.   Mikami understands the devastation of the loss of a child, since his own daughter Ayumi simply disappeared one day and aside from a few silent phone calls which Mikami's wife swears must have been their daughter calling just to hear their voices, has neither been seen nor heard of since.   The 1989 case was never solved, and from that time on, it has been referred to as "Six Four" because it took place in the Showa year 64.  It was also billed as the "Prefectural HQ's greatest failure," and there is only one year left before the statute of limitations runs out for this particular crime.

Back in D Prefecture, Mikami gets a surprise when he is ordered to go to visit the family of the Six Four kidnapping victim, to let them know that the police commissioner would like to meet with them on the crime's anniversary day and
"make an appeal, inside and outside the force, and to give a boost to the officers still investigating the case, to reinforce our intention never to let violent crime go unpunished."
The real purpose, Mikami's boss tells him, behind the commissioner's appeal is to "reach an internal audience" rather than "the general public." Immediately Mikami realizes that this is all about "politics" more than anything else.

Mikami decides to familiarize himself with the case files, and while going through them sees something odd.  His questions are met with silence in some cases, warnings to back off  in others, fueling his quest to dig further.  But as he is busy trying to find answers, big things are happening at  the prefectural HQ that force Mikami to examine his own relationship between himself and the people he works for, as well as his own personal feelings about the crime itself.

That's the basic plot in a brief nutshell, and makes for an excellent mystery, but  there's much, much more going on here.  First, the book tackles the issue of the relationship between the press and the police, which in my opinion is one of the best parts of this novel.  Second, it takes a look at the Japanese police force itself, as Mikami finds himself having to try to navigate through,  as author David Peace notes in the interview with Yokoyama at the end of the book (and do yourself a favor and save it for dead last),  "their political machinations and rivalries, internal, local and national...", dealing with ambition and the drive for power on the parts of some individuals.   And finally, it looks at the human costs of crime from the points of view of both the victims and the police.

I've seen so many not-so-positive reviews of this book -- mostly by readers who were disappointed that it was less of a thriller than an insight into everything I've just mentioned above. Well, to each his/her own as I'm fond of saying.    People looking for garden-variety thrillers or crime fiction should probably think twice about reading this one -- thrillers are a dime a dozen these days; books like this one are rarities and should be celebrated.


crime fiction from Japan

Friday, February 3, 2017

*Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Oxford University Press, 2009
362 pp


"They told me what a fine thing it was to be an Englishman, and about liberty and property, and all that there; and I  find it is all a flam. Lord, what fools we be!"
           -- 195

According to Ian Ousby, author of Bloodhounds of Heaven, this book is the first in English fiction to "display a sustained interest in the theme of detection," and that the book's hero, the titular Caleb Williams, is "the first important detective in the English novel."  Well-known British writer Julian Symons also noted that this book was important in the history of crime fiction, saying that it is in this novel that "The characteristic note of crime literature is first struck," and that it's "about a murder, its detection, and the unrelenting pursuit by the murderer of the person who has discovered his guilt."

Caleb Williams is also the first choice in this year's quest to read early crime fiction through the onset of World War I, which I've tagged as ecfp for early crime fiction project and which will be the asterisked posts for 2017.   It's also very good, and while it works very well as a commentary on social injustice, class and the abuses of power, it's also a novel that finds a man on the run after uncovering some startling information.

The nutshell version is this:  young Caleb Williams finds himself working as secretary for a respected local squire, Fernando Falkland.  He becomes curious as to what's up with his employer, who has taken on a solitary life with "no inclination to scenes of revelry and mirth," avoiding "the busy haunts of men." After about three months of employment, Williams is accused of spying on his master, which leads him to feel "uncommon dejection and anxiety," so for help he turns to Falkland's steward Collins for answers.  What he learns only increases his curiosity, and when Falkland reveals the secret he's been hiding for so long, Williams takes a vow that he will never disclose what he's learned.  He also decides that it's time to move on.  Unfortunately, due to the the nature of what Falkland is hiding, the squire decides that Williams must be punished for what he knows, and starts a relentless campaign of revenge and terror.  The novel follows Caleb through the persecution hell that Falkland puts him through, leading Caleb to fight for his very survival in the process.

There is a vast amount of scholarship on this novel available online, so I'll just throw in a couple of observations.  I'll agree with what Ousby says about this story --  that the detection in this book starts out as "an activity apparently designed to establish moral and intellectual clarity" and that "the detective, voluntarily or involuntarily, assumes the role of an agent of justice, seeking to distinguish good from evil and to identify the source of evil."  But, as has happened in so many of the better crime novels that have come after this book, Godwin reveals that "good and evil" and "the detective and the criminal" are "inextricably linked," growing into what he calls "symbiotic twins."   And in his piece about William Godwin in The Literary Encyclopedia, Andrew McGann notes that this book is also important in another area, the linking of "psychological exploration with political radicalism" which has also long been prevalent in crime novels.

It is a wonderful novel, to be sure, and while some people may find the prose a bit slow going, once you  pick up the rhythm there's a great story in here. It's most certainly a tension-ratcheting piece of work and quite frankly, I was so tempted to turn to the end to see what happens.  I didn't, but the temptation was definitely there.  The novel appeals to my sense of reading crime fiction with purpose, which for me is all about human nature and what it says about the factors (social, political, economical) at work that have everything to do with why people do what they do. Godwin makes this exceedingly clear in Caleb Williams -- making it well worth the time I put into this book.  It's another one that I will say is probably not for everyone, but oh  my gosh -- what a great novel to kick off my reading project!!

Anyone interested in reading about the author will find a great article here by Pamela Clemit, the author of the introduction to this edition of the novel; another excellent source is the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy.

Definitely recommended and for me, highly satisfying.