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Archive for June, 2014

imanishiI am quite hard to please when it comes to crime fiction. This is a genre that relies to a great extent on a well-crafted denouement, which is often precisely the let down. Some books, like those by Barbara Vine are redeemed by exceptionally sophisticated plotting and writing, even though the finish does not quite live up to my expectations. So, I do realize that by giving Inspector Imanishi Investigates a five-star rating, I might be setting future readers for disappointment by raising their expectations. But I’ll say with reasonable confidence that if you like crime fiction and/or care for social and cultural commentaries, reading this book will be time well spent.

Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1989) is the English translation of the much more poetically titled Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand) which was first published in 1961. Inspector Imanishi’s investigations certainly bear fruit, but shed no light (to me) on why this work should be titled Vessel of Sand, or what the picture on the book’s cover of a man covering his face with both hands is supposed to signify, and how it is relevant. Apart from these burning questions,  all plot-related intrigue is sufficiently cleared up.

Imanishi Eitaro (Imanishi being his family name) is a conscientious haiku-writing, bonsai-collecting detective trying to solve the mystery of a battered corpse of an unidentified man in a rail yard. His only clue is a half-line of conversation overheard by waitresses working at a nearby bar, that the victim supposedly had with an unidentified potential suspect. With almost nothing to go on, Inspector Imanishi slowly, methodically sets about identifying and capturing the killer. He does too, at the end.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates has an air of elegant simplicity, although its plot is anything but simple. This police procedural has layers upon layers, red herrings and blind alleys aplenty, and yet the richness of plot is intensified by the subtle and understated writing. The translation seems flat, but doesn’t impact the reading negatively, adding to the overall effect of sparseness. I can’t help but wonder whether reading this book in Japanese will have the same effect—I’ll never know.  Imianishi has none of the swagger of Philip Marlowe or the eccentricity of Hercule Poirot. He is just a good detective – deliberate, hardworking, quietly intelligent, though he’s not beyond an occasional miscalculation. He is mostly likeable, even if entirely conventional, and a little brusque (though not unkind) in dealings with his wife, who polishes his shoes, gets his newspaper, and uncomplainingly welcomes him home at the end of long days spent investigating. This is the 1960s after all, and the reader is oft reminded of the post-war, patriarchal setting of the story. Part of the charm is certainly the descriptions of everyday life – the pouring of the green tea over rice for a quick dinner, the Wajima lacquerware obi fasteners that Imanishi gifts his wife, the Kamedake abacus that Imanishi receives in the post, and such.

I am excited to read more by Matsumoto and will look out for Points and Lines and Pro Bono.

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Night Film

night filmNight Film (2014) has  pretty impressive  credentials – New York Times Bestseller! Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Cosmopolitan, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage. The book lovin’ community also seems to have lapped it up – mostly. So, of course, I wanted to read it. What should have given me pause was that it comes recommended as a “page-turning thriller for readers of” among several others, Gillian Flyn. Remember Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn? The same Gone Girl that won, according to goodreads:

Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award (RT Award) for Suspense/Thriller Novel (2012),Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Best Novel (2012)Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Goodreads Choice for Best Mystery & Thriller (2012)Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2013), and Grand Prix des lectrices de Elle – policier (2013)

Well, I didn’t  care much for it.

So, after investing a few days on the nearly 600-page lumbering tome (only in length) that is Night Film, my reaction was an underwhelming meh.

I haven’t read much noir, and Night Film would certainly fall into that bucket (whether successful or not) so I don’t really have a frame of reference here. But enjoy it, I did not.

The missing center of the book is a mysterious cult horror-film director, a Stanislas Cordova, whose twenty-something daughter, Ashley, jumps to her death. Enter the protagonist, shamed investigative journalist Scott McGrath, the shining examples of whose once-illustrious journalistic history include intriguing titles such as Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry, and Cocaine Carnivals. McGrath sets out to investigate Ashley’s life and death together with unlikely companions, Nora and Hopper, whose motivations are not entirely comprehensible entirely bewildering. Cordova’s eccentricity begins to grate after the first 300 pages, and the themes of black-magic and family-curses only add to the confusion. The conclusion is neither neat nor clever.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the characters – none of them are very likable, but that does not really preclude interesting or good characterization. To me, all the characters fell flat and felt completely phony. I could not buy who they were and what they did. I could not buy the outlandish scenarios they found themselves in. The setting and the people felt bizarre, but not good, noir-like bizarre, but just plain absurd.

Neither did I enjoy the writing. Author Marisha Pessl interjects the meandering writing with plenty of visual aids – webpages of interviews and articles, official reports and plenty of pictures. A great idea in theory, but poorly executed – the news clippings and pictures seem too contrived, and if they are meant to be a satire, they are unsuccessful.

The book goes from promising hype to disappointing beginning, and all too quickly into the territory of Plain Boring (I feel a bit cruel saying this, though). I really tried to like it, but even being a 100-pages shorter, would not have endeared this book to me.

But no long-lasting harm done. Nothing a trusty Mo Willems can’t fix. His Elephant and Piggie  series has been a great hit with my four-year old, and he has leapfrogged explosively into unaided reading.

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