Category Archives: Book Reviews

An Introduction to Japanese Crime and Detective Novels

It was probably in early 2015, when I had just purchased my Kindle, that I learnt about the existence of Japanese crime and detective novels, or more specifically speaking, about the existence of English translations of Japanese crime and detective novels. Since then I have read more than 20 books by Japanese authors – most of them being crime or detective novels – with more lined up for the months ahead. That is about 6-7 Japanese crime novels a year. To put that in perspective, the years of 2012-2014 probably saw me read about 2-4 books a year total. So yes, I totally got hooked on to them from the beginning. But more importantly, it (and the Kindle) triggered my overall reading habit back into motion, and since 2015, I have read about 10-12 books each year, if not more. My wife, who barely had any reading habit at all, has now more or less caught up with me on these books in less than a year! And it has got HER reading other books as well!

(As a small aside, I drove to meet her in Kansas City earlier this month. We were meeting up after a few weeks so I was excited to see her. She was reading a Japanese crime novel when I surprised her at the hotel room by arriving earlier than I had said. I was all smiles and excitement. HER immediate reaction, however, was to yell at me, “They just discovered 9 bodies!!! Why did you have to come at this very moment?!!!??” You get the idea….) 

My wife and I have gained tremendous satisfaction and a sense of awe from these books and would definitely want more people to experience this for themselves. And hence this post to  introduce people to Japanese crime and detective fiction.

It should be noted that these books only began to get translated to English a few years ago. And following the overwhelming response from the English reading community, publishers are now falling head over heels to get more works translated. So, most of the authors already have a large collection of books published in Japanese, but are waiting for them to be translated to English. The publishers appear to be ‘releasing’ these books once every few months or so, so always keep an eye out for new ones. I am not sure about the extent of the availability of these books in ‘print’ form. (I have only read 2 of these in print). But all of these are definitely available on Kindle. And seriously, a Kindle would be a worthwhile investment JUST to read these books!

So this post is intended to be about where to start, what to expect, what not to expect, general recommendations, and tips for reading the books. But before we get to the actual content, I would strongly recommend adhering to the following general tips:

Do not read any blurbs, summaries or reviews: I cannot emphasize this enough. I am a very strong believer in letting the book surprise you right from the first page without any preset expectations or ideas. And with the mystery novels such as these, it takes an even bigger significance. So even in this post, I am not going to ‘rate’ or ‘review’ the books. I will only make a general recommendation. So please, just dive straight into the book!

Keep track of the names separately: All these books are made up of Japanese names (duh!) that may or may not be easy to remember. Some books have a relatively small number of characters while others will require a mandatory index of characters to be created if you want to keep track of who is who. So it might be worth your while to have a small note that lists all the characters in the books.

Keep track of the geography: This is not really a requirement, but would definitely help visualize a lot of the action and gives a useful spatial perspective. You will also understand what is the difference between a city, prefecture and a ward!

Not for Kids: No other way to put it. This is not something you want to give to your kids to read. This is for the most part 18+ material.

Movie versions: Many of the books below have been made into movies and/or TV shows. But, as always, read the book first. Then watch the movie.

By the time you have read through a dozen books or so, you will also learn a lot about Japanese culture in general – including (and especially) the widespread existence and a seemingly complete acceptance of shady ‘Love Hotels’! (They are exactly what you think they are!)

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In any case, below is a list of books/authors that I would personally recommend to get started with Japanese crime and detective fiction. This is a list of the authors who are most popular and recommended. And in the end, I have also included a list of other books where the author may not have had multiple books in print/translation.

Keigo Higashino: There is literally no other place to start. If you are talking Japanese crime and detective fiction, Higashino is pretty much the default starting point and the bench mark. There are currently 7 of his works available in English translation with an 8th on its way in 2018. From my knowledge, everybody pretty much starts with Devotion of Suspect X. And it is probably where I would recommend starting as well. It introduces the extremely adorable ‘Detective Galileo’ who will also appear on Salvation of a Saint and A Midsummer’s Equation. Each of those books are highly recommended. Malice and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are his other two strongly recommended books. The strength of Higashino’s books are the underlying premises and the steady development of the plot towards the revelation of these premises. Like most of the books listed in this post, Higashino’s books have a laser focus on the plot development, eschewing any and all distractions such as police bureaucracy, random female non-characters (I am looking at you Michael Connelly!), etc. All the above books are police procedurals and are probably the best introduction you can have to Japanese crime and detective fiction. The one outlier, of course, is Under the Midnight Sun. Coming in at more than twice the length of his other books, this book is more of a soap opera than a crime novel. (Its cast of characters went into several pages! And my wife had named two of them as ‘Fuckboy 1’ and ‘Fuckboy 2’ – implying exactly what they stand for!) It is extremely difficult to believe it is the same guy who wrote this book! So, even if you avoid Under the Midnight Sun, that is completely OK. It is by no means a bad book, just extremely un-Higashino like. But, as a fan of Higashino, I will put it like this: “Some Higashino is still better than no Higashino!”

Seicho Matsumoto: The first Japanese crime fiction book I read was Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. To this day, it remains the absolute best I have read. It has a strong premise, police procedural work meticulously detailed, very steady build up, and a satisfying conclusion – the hallmarks of an excellent detective novel. I was blown away and it provided the motivation to explore more in this genre. In fact, this book was so good that my expectations from Matsumoto ended up being too high for all his other books: Pro Bono, A Quiet Place, and Points and Lines. They are not bad books by any means, but are nowhere near the level of Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Would still recommend them, but do not be surprised if you feel the same way I do.

Tetsuya Honda: Probably the only author to feature a female lead detective, Honda currently has 2 of his books in English translation. Silent Dead was the first book to feature Detective Reiko Himekawa, and this was recently followed up with Soul Cage (reading in progress). Silent Dead featured the same engrossing (but extra dark) premise and mystery as other ones I have mentioned above and also had a fairly steady plot development. But the book makes use of some rather common tropes such as bureaucracy in the police department, non-communication of evidence at crucial junctures, misogynistic colleagues, etc. But to Honda’s credit, these still somehow tie into the actual plot development. (It is nowhere as bad as anything you will see in a Michael Connelly book). But the tension between the competing detectives is so well articulated that, midway through the book, I bet you will be heavily rooting for Himekawa!

So those are authors who have at least 2 books in print and whom I have read. Below are some more books that are worth reading:

Confessions by Kanae Minato: This book is not a straightforward crime or detective novel, but it does involve several crimes and a rather unusual approach to solving them that leads to even more grotesque consequences. The book itself is a great read. So good, that it was made into a movie that got nominated for the Oscars (Best Foreign language film).

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada: This book officially has the most grotesque premise I have personally come across. Which is probably the only reason why I would strongly recommend it! The writing and the plot development are not the best, but making your way through the book just to uncover the dark premise is worth the effort!

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: I have always strongly believed that the presence of bureaucratic situations in police/detective books are completely unnecessary and only work to hinder plot development. But what if the bureaucracy IS the plot itself? That is Six Four for you. Full marks for plot development and general premise, but the book lets you down big time in the ending. It is not that the ending runs counter to the plot development. It is not even an open ended conclusion. Instead, it actually looks like it is incomplete and kind of leaves you hanging. It is still a gripping read and there is definitely the bare necessary amount of resolution in the ending. But the real reason why I recommend this book is because, by the time you are done with it, you will know the structure and hierarchy of the entire Japanese Police force by heart! And you would have never thought you would care so much about the battle between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs!

So there you have it. Enough book recommendations to keep you occupied and hooked on to Japanese crime novels for the next several months. Now please do yourself a favor and start reading Higashino!


		
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India in Slow Motion by Mark Tully: A Book Review

India in Slow Motion

India in Slow Motion

It is not so often that one comes across a book that reinforces the potential of presenting facts and situations to capture the interest of a reader in a way that the book becomes both educative and a page turner. INDIA IN SLOW MOTION by Mark Tully does just that. With his immaculately diverse  set of ten typically Indian  real life stories, he has successfully brought about the fundamental flaws in the system that is governing this country. I first interacted with Mark Tully at IIT Bombay during their fest and was impressed by his knowledge and observations. And after reading India in Slow Motion, my respect and admiration for him has grown ten fold.

Most of the book is not as much about exposing the familiar problems plaguing India, as it is about revealing the intricacies, significance and true extent of the same. Topics such as the Ayodhya issue, corruption, droughts, farmer suicides, Kashmir, the IT revolution are not unfamiliar. But the treatment that Tully has meted out to these topics inevitably makes us rethink our own estimation of the nature and significance of the problem. Be it the thrilling, detailed first hand account of the entire Tehelka sting operation which got the Defence Minister to resign, the true tale of Kashmir and why it is in its present state or a little known village in Gujarat that has declared independence from the rest of the country, Tully describes an India which exhibits  a common foundation running through all of them-the NETA-BABU Raj-which he finds to be the single most important factor why India is still a country in Slow Motion.

The book starts off by describing a small but largely representative incident in a remote village  in Madhya Pradesh, where a Cyber Cafe built by an NGO is being brought down on the orders issued by a bureaucrat of the region for not possessing a particular “Internet Service Provider License -II”. This incident is small because it never made to the papers and representative because it shows how the Indian bureaucracy is working to defeat it’s own purpose.  Other stories in the book  deal with many cultural and religious aspects including a first hand account of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent efforts to build a Ram Temple in the same site along with detailed descriptions about the rise and present state of Christianity in Goa and also an informative chapter on Sufism and the stance taken by different Muslim leaders in India.

But the crux of the book lies in the revelation of a large number of small facts that goes a long way in choosing the correct frame of reference to look and judge this country’s state of affairs. A large many assumptions developed over years of exposure to the Indian media is convincingly set right by simply reflecting on these hard facts plaguing the country and of which, the majority of us are blissfully unaware. Sample this: In a chapter dealing solely with the farmer suicides in Karnataka, Tully describes the procedure for a farmer to obtain a low interest loan from a Nationalized Bank as per a Govt scheme. In the words of the Bank Manager:

Before any farmer can ask for a loan, he has to produce, one-land records, two- records of rights, three-no dues from the government, four-records of all land revenue paid, five-land valuation certificates, six-no dues from agricultural societies, seven-permission from court if applicant is a minor and eighth(and here is the best part!)- NO DUES CERTIFICATES FROM ALL THE OTHER 9 BANKS IN THE AREA!!!!!!”

And to procure the no dues certificate from all the other banks, a farmer has to approach each and every bank individually and get a certificate from each of them!

Another equally glaring fact concerns the structure and the working of the Police force in India. Tully quotes directly from a report submitted by a Senior retired Police Officer who says:

“..the 1861 Act passed by the British Raj still governs the organization, structure, philosophyand working of our police forces at the end of the twentieth century, never mind the phenomenal changes in our social, political, scientific, economic, and cultural spheres over the decades. The pattern adopted by the 1861 Act was based on the Irish Constabulary because Ireland was a colony at that time.”

Another Senior Police Officer says:

“..for the bureaucracy, control over the police has become an intoxicant they are addicted to and are just not willing to give up. And so the act of 1861 continues to be on the statute book even after nearly one hunderd and forty years-a millstone round the police neck”

Here is another concerning the corruption in the Indian Military:

“An Arms dealer has to bribe a Major General around Rs. 10 lakhs just so the dealer can obtain the list of equipment that the Indian Army is looking to test and purchase!”

Simple but revealing facts like these are in abundance in the book largely due to Tully’s first hand investigation into every topic he has written about. One of the best chapters in the book, I found, was the one on corruption which included a detailed first hand account of the entire TEHELKA sting operation by the very man who performed the sting with the hidden camera! The thrilling encounters with the top politicians and military leaders coupled with the glaring and inexcusable stupidity on part of the Generals for believing everything makes the chapter both humorous and thought provoking. The chapter on the Farmer suicides in Karnataka during the drought on the turn of the millenium is also very well documented with facts revealing such a lack of basic common sense among the officials, that one feels there is no hope for the Indian farmer. Like a farmer says,”A farmer in India is born in debt, lives in debt, dies in debt and is reborn in debt!” Another truly memorable quote that perfectly epitomizes  the life of a farmer comes from a farmer who is asked why he is not investing in long term gains and stability by sending his children to school. He says: “Sir, we farmers are not concerned about what happens 10-15 years from now. All we care about is being able to live through today…everyday”

The stories in India in Slow Motion do little to portray India the way political campaigns (like India Shining) do. But at the same time, the stories do not aim to bring out the harsh realities prevailing in the country such as poverty. What it does aim, however, is to give first hand information on issues that every Indian is familiar with. Though a few stories form an exception  to the familiarity aspect, the underlying objective of giving the readers first hand information on the ground reality successfully weaves through these stories as well. Throughout the book, Tully never makes the slightest effort to force his opinion on the reader. In fact, his completely objective portrayal of ground reality obviates the need for the reader to frame an opinion about India’s prospects. And so, instead, his astute observations compel the reader to develop both the positive and negative outlooks about India.

Tully’s inferences always tend to tell a tale of a car trying to move forward with its brakes on. In spite of describing stories that show the blatant inefficiency  and flaws in the governance system, Tully still displays an optimism that stems from recent and not so recent history when India did make the effort to liberate the economy, thereby easing a little off the brakes on its path to development. But the question of how long or what it takes for these changes to come about, though raised, is left deliberately unanswered. This book is a must read before anyone decides to have a say about any aspect of the present state of affairs in India.

Atonement by Ian McEwan: A Book Review

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is much more than just a novel. It is a supreme work of literature. With the ability to imbibe beautifully crafted sentences that convey a lot more than just a story, McEwan has demonstrated a unique and unparalleled talent to tell the story by laying stress on giving a convincing description of the thoughts of his characters. And so, as you savor one by one, the stream of the characters’ thoughts, it is not long before you realize that Atonement ceases to be just any other novel and instead, it assumes the shape of a delightful portrayal of psychological realism. The innocently dangerous thoughts of a 13 year old, the desperate battle for the will to survive amidst a war, the unreasonable demands and wishes of nine year olds, the tragedy of a hope, the reality of war, the desire to atone- all find a place in this magnificent meta-fictional novel.

 

Atonement opens with Briony Tallis, a 13 year old aspiring writer, preparing a play to be performed on the occasion of her brother, Leon’s homecoming. There is an evident lack of focus in the opening pages, with the scenes largely drifting along Briony’s thoughts. It is however not long before all the characters are introduced and the book settles itself into a well crafted rhythm. But as soon as you expect events to unfold, McEwan makes it perfectly clear that he plans to tell the story through his characters’ thoughts rather than their actions. And so, every thought, every conscious and sub conscious occurrence is dealt with in the most satisfying and elaborate fashion.

 

“….The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse. Her reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual……….Briony had lost her godly power of creation, but it was only at this moment of return that the loss became evident; part of a daydream’s enticement was the illusion that she was helpless before its logic.”

“…..She wanted to leave, she wanted to lie alone, face down on her bed and savour the vile piquancy of the moment, and go back down the lines of branching consequences to the point before the destruction began…..Self pity needed her full attention, and only in solitude could she breathe life into the lacerating details…”

 

 

And so we are subjected to the day dreaming of a 13 year old Briony, the subtleties of whose response to an unfulfilled expectation is explored in magnificent detail. But perhaps, what is of even more significance and relevance is Briony’s dangerous illusion of having attained adolescence. And it is as a result of the dangerous presence of this illusion that she convinces herself that she has indeed understood the true meaning of the event she witnesses on the garden from her window. By nightfall the same day, she finds herself involved in more situations where circumstances demand her to construe with maturity, and which she consciously does, but alas, under just the delusion of the same. And the illusion of her attaining a greater sense of responsibility, manifesting itself in her imagination, culminates during the early hours of the following day, when she accuses Robbie, the house keeper’s son, of a crime he didn’t commit. This one act, arising out of her assuming superficial responsibility, haunts her eventually as she then decides to spend the rest of her life trying to atone for the same.

 

McEwan’s attention to the conscious and the sub-conscious thoughts of his characters are portrayed in such convincing detail that he takes over 200 pages to describe the events of a single day. In it, we are subjected to Cecelia, Briony’s sister, and her unobtrusive lifestyle, having spent her entire college days in complete denial of her love to Robbie. And Robbie himself, who optimistically wishes to pursue a career in medicine, keeps his silence to himself and his thoughts from her. But how they let go of that unspoken and unacknowledged desire for each other in such an uninhibited manner, one night inside a library, is so beautifully described that even though the description goes into the minute details of their encounter, not at one moment, do you find the whole encounter offensive or objectionable. We also find Mrs. Tallis, the authority of the house, unwell as she usually finds herself to be, perceiving the actions of each and every person in her house through the walls of her bedroom. We meet Leon, Briony’s brother, and his friend Paul, the chocolate billionaire who are the guests for the night. Briony’s cousin Lola, who is a couple of years elder than Briony, also forms part of the homecoming celebration with her adolescent mindset, well set in.

Once you go beyond that one fateful day, McEwan  vehemently explores Robbie’s mind, as he reluctantly participates in a war filled with a reality that is dangerously unfamiliar to him. The delirious state of the military during the Dunkirk Retreat forms the backdrop of the surreal scenes of pain and hopelessness surrounding him as he walks miles and miles to the shore accompanied by a few of his buddies, with his only impetus for survival being the words that he carries on a sheet of paper in his breast pocket, Cecelia’s words : “I will wait for you. Come Back…” And amidst all the mind numbing tragedies around him, his only source of happiness and bliss, is his regular withdrawals from his memory bank- that one parting kiss that he shared with her just before he left for the war.

 

“…..He kissed her, lightly at first, but they drew closer, and when their tongues touched, a disembodied part of himself was abjectly grateful, for he knew he now had a memory in the bank and would be drawing on it for months to come. He was drawing on it now, in a French barn, in the small hours.”

“ ‘…..Realistically, there had to be a choice- you or them. How could it be both? I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one, my reason for life. Cee.’….He knew these last lines by heart and mouthed them now in the darkness. My reason for life. Not Living, but life. That was the touch. And she was his reason for life, and why he must survive. He lay on his side, staring at where he thought the barn’s entrance was, waiting for the first signs of light. He was too restless for sleep now. He wanted only to be walking to the coast.”

 

The reason why this book captivates you is largely due to its ability to take the reader deep into the psyche of the characters and into what they are thinking. So much so, that the thoughts completely obviate the necessity of the actions. It also lies in the successful exploration of the concept of atonement- as seen through Briony’s voluntary effort to right what she wronged. Perhaps, a crucial scene in the book is one in which Briony is treating a young French soldier who is about to die. The French Soldier believes that she is his long lost love and continues to talk to her about the various things that he would do back home. And just before he dies in her arms, he calls out her name: “Tallis…..”, which Briony later realizes the difference in the way he said it. (“……She could still hear his voice, the way he said Tallis, turning it into a girl’s name…”) There are plenty more instances in the book which fill the reader with such a satisfied quality experience that it is difficult not to go through the last pages of the book filled with awe and wonder.

But there is nothing more moving and complete than the way the concept of Atonement is encapsulated in the words of an ageing Briony:

“…How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? ……No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. …”

 

One of the most compelling and satisfying reads ever. No wonder this book was chosen as one among the Times Best 100 Books. And no wonder it was made into an Oscar nominated movie by the same name. But no level of film making can get the beauty of the written words onto the screen. A must read for all book fanatics.

 

 

No Country for Old Men- A Book Review

“What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?”

No Country for old men


Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men consists of a fast paced Western story with elements of greed, evil, senility and guilt all inculcated in razor sharp dialogues. McCarthy’s unique writing style makes it a little difficult to follow the story initially, but once you get used to the absence of quotes, the judicious use of conjunctions and the absence of references to the speakers, you will find it hard to put the book down. What compels you to keep reading the book, however, is the way the depth of its characters is constantly under revelation through the dialogues and actions alone. There is never a single description of any character in the book- appearance-wise or with regard to the character itself- that helps one to visualize the characters involved. Nevertheless, the sharp dialogues and monologues completely obviate the need for the same. Take for instance Anton Chigurh’s intimidating dialogue with the proprietor of a filling station. The whole scenario doesn’t serve any purpose with regard to progression of the plot. But the ease and terror with which it reveals the guiltless, contemplating evil character of Anton Chigurh can take any seasoned reader by surprise. Or for that matter the definite and purposeful use of his weapon- the cattle gun. In fact, the terror of Chigurh, largely perceived through his sharp dialogues and actions, sometimes goes to the extent of being comical in nature, thereby deceiving the reader (but not his victim) on the intensity of the scene. The humor, in general, is sparse, but when present, it is subtly comical in nature despite the evidently perilous circumstances surrounding the character.

No Country for Old Men takes off with the seemingly facile escape of Anton Chigurh, the main antagonist, from the Sheriff’s prison. It immediately shifts focus and follows the journey of Llewlyn Moss, a welder (“If it is anything that can be welded, then I can weld it.”) , who stumbles across the remains of a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert. When he discovers the 2.4 million dollars in hard cash and decides to take it, he realizes that he has to run. The rest of the book follows his journey as Anton Chigurh tries to hunt Moss down to retrieve the money and to kill him for having caused “some inconvenience”. Amidst this cat and mouse game for the money, McCarthy provides some much needed balance to the storyline in the form of Sheriff Bell, the long standing Sheriff of the county who is on the lookout for the ghost of Chigurh, whose ruminations and self evaluation on a myriad of personal and general aspects form the small alternate chapters in the book.

In the end, this is not just a book about the good v/s the evil. That is because there is no ‘absolute good’ in this book. There maybe an absolute evil in the form of Chigurh- considering his terse explanation about why he has to ‘do it’. But there is definitely no absolute good. Not in Moss and definitely not in Sheriff Bell. But it is this presence of large areas of grey that makes the reader follow the story in an objective manner-not clearly knowing what you want the end of each character to be. Looking from a broader perspective, No Country for Old Men successfully explores, through Sheriff Bell’s meditations, the continuous moral decadence of the West through the decades, giving a clear idea as to where it is now headed. If I have to give 2 reasons why you should read the book, the first one would be to see the expertise of McCarthy in bringing out the depth in his characters without having to resort to a single description and the second one would be to explore and marvel at the character that is Anton Chigurh.

For those of you, who like me, have watched the movie first, there is still quite a lot left for exploring in the book. And I have to say that watching the movie definitely helped me visualize the scenes and the characters better and you will also see why Javier Bardem got the Oscar for his portrayal of Anton Chigurh.