The Ghosts of Mystery

The mystery novel has always attracted writers from outside the genre, fascinated by the opportunities it offers to explore times, places, and the people who commit crimes in ways that other fiction categories seem to avoid.

While Poe is generally agreed upon as the starting point of the novel of detection in this country and Wilkie Collins (1824-89) in England, the Dante scholar, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), and the wife of an archaeologist, Agatha Christie (1890-1976), provided a firm foundation for the second generation in Europe. In this country Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were democratizing the crime story, taking it out of the country manor and setting it in the relatively mean streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Splendid as these worthies were, it was not until Eudora Welty’s front-page review in “The New York Times Book Review” of Santa Barbaran Ross Macdonald that the mystery novel was allowed to eat in the dining room, along with the rest of literature.

There went the neighborhood! In fact, there went the world. The French writer, Georges Simenon (1903-89), was recognized in several major review publications and, indeed, “The New York Review of Books” keeps a number of his Inspector Maigret titles in print in its estimable Classics Series, along with at least four Simenon noir mysteries. Simenon was followed by mystery writers from Sweden, and a remarkable series set in Amsterdam by Janwillem van den Wettering, who had at one time been an Amsterdam cop and at another time a Zen monk.

Not to forget Alexander McCall Smith’s series set in Zimbabwe, nor indeed the so-called Scottish Mafia, Ian Rankin and Denise Mina, whose works give us a sense of the universal about some of the nature of crime while at the same time showing the specific dynamics of Scotland.

All well and good, but no Japan. Not until Natsuo Kirino (1951-), whose novel “Out,” won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and was, on its publication here, nominated for the most prestigious mystery award, the Edgar. Now there is her latest, “Grotesque,” in an excellent, readable and agreeably colloquial translation by Rebecca Copeland, its American edition published by Knopf, still one of the more literary of American publishers and, incidentally, the publisher of Ross Macdonald.

From the outset of “Grotesque,” you notice something out of the ordinary, a kind of literary sharp tang, like a smear of wasabi, the piquant green paste served with a Japanese dish. It is the voice and attitude of one of the principal narrators, a woman who tells us she is now 39. By the time she tells us that, she has told us, revealed, and defended any number of things about herself – but not her name. Her younger sister, Yuriko, is named early on, and almost immediately, we know of this unnamed narrator that she is preternaturally jealous and scornful of her sister.

Yuriko is so stunningly beautiful that even as a child people are drawn to her, including her parents, a mixed-race couple. Realizing early the unfairness of life, our narrator describes with growing bitterness her attempts to succeed in school, her attempts to progress through the labyrinth of plainness she senses in herself. All the while, her dislike of Yuriko intensifies to the point where news of Yuriko’s murder leaves her cold and untroubled.

The next narrator is the sister, Yuriko, who describes how her awareness of her sister’s intelligence and of her own beauty has led her to control those about her, the women by charm, the males by seduction. She has become a prostitute.

Yuriko’s tale is followed by Zhang, an illegal immigrant from China, where he and his family were so poor, they were forced to live in a squalid cave. Zhang’s resourcefulness at survival make him almost likeable if not admirable – until, that is, he changes the tenor of the novel and its subsequent arc by confessing to the murder of Yuriko, whose body is discovered in a Tokyo apartment along with the body of another prostitute, Kazue Sato. It is not a spoiler to suggest that you will, as I did, suspect that Zhang has also killed Kazue.

Have all the suspicions you wish; that is a deliberate part of Natsuo Kirino’s intent. She is a deft, insightful writer, with craft to spare as she leads us through the maze of Japanese culture, the Japanese suspicion of foreigners, and the reasons behind the attractiveness of things Japanese to foreigners. Kirino also leads us through the maze of suspecting one of the two sisters in not being truthful, much less being reliable.

Although I admire out of perversity the details and techniques in which the disagreeable unnamed narrator is presented, the fourth narrative segment, that of Kazue Sato, radiates in my estimation. Kazue, an honors graduate of a top-ranked university, finds a plum job, with prestige and salary to match. But pressures from within the job and her family bring her to the boiling point, a point I talk about in fiction-related classes as The Unthinkable. Roiling with frustrations, Kazue takes the remarkable-but-plausible step of becoming a prostitute. That she is not doing it for the money makes it all the more poignant.

These are the four major threads, all set in motion for the kind of dramatic and emotional payoff associated with the early and middle mystery novels of Dennis Lehane. Other threads include journal entries and newspaper stories, which also reflect a vision of Japanese culture that radiates with a quirky, believable sense of detail and intimacy.

The father of the first two narrators is a Swiss, seemingly uncharacteristically Swiss in his abusive treatment of his eldest daughter. His wife is Japanese, the two brought together by the remarkable forces that draw persons of differing races and cultures together. He is precise, methodical, stingy. She is submissive, pragmatic, an interesting subset of Japanese practicality to her husband’s Swiss practicality. The mystery here is of the unusual amid the usual, the murder among the routine, the anachronisms among the traditions.

“Grotesque” is a mystery of culture, of beauty, of simmering resentment, of sexual yearnings driven over the edge, all meeting head on in a country struggling with the clash of tradition and identity. It takes the basic question of why a person would kill another into a process of detection that once again refreshes the format and puzzle we think of when we say mystery.