Sunday, September 21, 2008

Inspector Imanishi Investigates: Seichō Matsumoto

Considering the feet-on-the-street nature of a typical police procedural, it tends to afford a good view of the city where the crime (and the corresponding investigation) takes place. With Inspector Imanishi, it gets even better. Since the investigation takes the inspector (and his assistant in some cases) to different cities in Japan, the book gives the reader a broad sweep of Japan. Particularly evocative is the town of Kameda, famous for its cloth (the Kameda weave) and its dried noodles.

The two detectives visited the dried noodle shop. Next to it, bamboo poles were set with noodles draped from them. This made the noodles appear like white waterfalls when the sun shone on them.

Another reason to read Inspector Imanishi is the window it gives into Japanese society. (Though it is important to keep in mind that the book was originally written in the early 1960s, and hence be aware that some of these may have changed, especially the portrayal of the woman in a rather submissive role.) The habit of pouring tea into one’s rice I found particularly fascinating. As also the innate hospitality of the Japanese, even to strangers.

Purely from the perspective of the police investigation itself, Inspector Imanishi throws up a few surprises. There is absolutely no pace or urgency in the investigation. Which, contrary to what you may expect, seems to work in the book’s favour. After the initial flurry of activity, except for Inspector Imanishi, no one else seems even too interested in unravelling the murder. So while there is no real cooperation extended to the inspector (except at a very peripheral level by Yoshimoro Hiroshi), there isn’t too much expectation and pressure either. Perhaps this ensured that the investigation team did not cut corners, did not commit mistakes on account of time pressures.

The personality of the murderer is another interesting aspect of the book. Even when he starts sniffing the investigation, he doesn’t target Inspector Imanishi. Moreover, apart from the core murder, for which he has a good motive, the murderer is forced into some of the other murders just to cover his tracks. Which he does, without coming across as particularly bloodthirsty. Cold-blooded? Hmm, no. Logical is more the word that comes to mind.

Only when Inspector Imanishi starts holding things back from you does the book sag a bit. Until then, you are with him at every stage (even though, amusingly, Yoshimora never seems to be). Ultimately the pieces fall together and you are with him again.

The film version of this book, Vessel of Sand (also the Japanese title of the book), is considered one of the classics of Japanese cinema, and it is not hard to see why when you read the book. All things considered, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is a world-class police procedural on many counts – worthy of comparison with the best in the business.