Arbit, ART, Book Reviews, books, Thoughts

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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America, ART, books

How I Learnt to Embrace the Amazon Kindle

Works of art and the method of their consumption had been two sides of the same coin all the way up to the 90’s, and perhaps even later. Music meant sitting in front of a music system, picking up a cassette/CD/Vinyl and inserting it into the device, hitting play, and observing the artwork and/or lyrics while the music played on the speakers. Movies meant dressing up and going to the theaters, or playing it on the VCR/DVD players. Books meant hardbound or paperback copies that came with the characteristic smell that made romantics of everyone who ever got the pages close to their faces and took a deep breath. The ability to exercise this sense of touch (and sometimes the sense of smell) in the consumption process appeared to validate and complete the experience. It generated a sense of fulfillment for the consumer that reinforced its legitimacy. As a result, the attachment between the consumer and the work of art was always identified with the mode of consumption.

This was the kind of world I grew up in. And needless to say, I had a strong opinion on these issues once the seemingly disruptive forces of technology came knocking on everyone’s doors. These opinions became even more pronounced after I started earning, as the money allowed me to purchase more music and books. (I currently boast of a sizable vinyl and CD collection as well as a half decent sized bookshelf stocked with books of all types.) Now though I did embrace the mp3 player simply because it made music portable, I had a hard time accepting the idea of an e-reader for a book.

The idea of reading a book on an electronic device was just completely unacceptable to me. I had always denounced the act of reading books on the computer. E-readers was never going to be any better. Convenience could not and should not trump quality of experience, I had propositioned. When someone asked me my opinion on the e-readers, I used to tell them something along the lines of the following:

If I pay for a book, I want to be able to own it. If I want to own it, I need to be able to see it and hold it. I also need to be able to put it on display in a shelf as a form of a statement of my taste in literature. In addition to this, I love just the act of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages and being able to physically connect with the work of art through the sense of touch. I will never get that fulfillment with an e-reader.

I held on to that point of view for the longest time – even, admittedly, after being fascinated with the Amazon Kindle’s features and clarity. Then last summer around Labor Day, I took a solo vacation to Colorado. I carried with me two books: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and GGM’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, two things came in the way of me reading those books. Firstly, I soon realized that I didn’t want to read something that was very demanding of my focus and attention – definitely not after a long day of hiking and/or driving. I just wanted something that would take me away for an hour or so without me having to put in too much of an effort to appreciate the niceties of the book. Secondly, it really was an inconvenience to carry both the books around everywhere I had to go. Even when I did want to read them, it was under circumstances when I did not have them on me. And that quickly became frustrating.

The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is highly recommended

The frustration was not primarily borne out of my wrong choice of books to carry, or the inconvenience it caused me to carry them around wherever I went. I was frustrated simply because I had missed out on the act of reading. That was it. It was not that I ended up being too busy or tired to read. It was just that I did not have access to the right books and a more suitable mode of reading them.

That vacation made me strongly reconsider my position on the idea of an e-reader. I quickly realized that, when it came to reading books, my main objective should be to simply read more. As trivial as it may sound, it is the plain and simple truth. I realized that the mode of consumption does not change the actual content  that was consumed, or equally significantly, its quality. Unlike the Mp3, whose quality is discernibly lower than what you would get from a CD or a vinyl, the words in a book remain the same regardless of what format you read it in. I even visited the sub-reddit for Amazon Kindle to see if people had brought forward any negative impacts on their reading habits after its purchase. On the contrary, what I found was unanimous positive feedback on the impact of the Amazon Kindle on the user’s reading habits. Every one of them specified that they had simply begun to read more frequently and longer – or in other words, they had simply begun to read more. 

And that, tipped the scales in favor of me getting my own Kindle Paperwhite. I got it as my parents’ gift for me on my 29th birthday. And since then, there has been absolutely no looking back. I have finished more books in the few months since then than I had in the previous year or more. I have discovered  new genres of fiction I very likely would have never made the effort to purchase a physical copy of. The prices are at least 30-40% cheaper than at a retail bookstore, if not practically free of cost. The convenience of being able to purchase a book during a moment of inspiration did wonders to my reading habit. And the device itself performs its function in an impeccable manner. It is very easy to hold and operate (most common being the act of navigating to the next page) when compared to holding a physical book in my hands at an awkward angle. The best feature of the Kindle may perhaps be its lack of too many. The focus is completely on the reading experience. Even the features it does have do not impose themselves on the reader, thereby minimizing any potential distractions.

So yes, I have done a full 180 degree turn with regards to my opinion on the idea of e-readers. Once you realize that it’s the act of consumption that matters, not the mode of consumption, you will be able to appreciate what the Kindle (or any other e-reader) can do to your reading habit. In fact, I was so excited with my Kindle that I got one for my parents and one for my 13 year old cousin when I went back home to India earlier this year. I will leave it to you to guess what the impact has been on their reading habits.

The simple fact is this: I bought a Kindle and my reading habit has grown exponentially. I am able to procure books for far lesser prices and I have explored new genres which I otherwise would never have. Equally importantly, I have not stopped reading or buying physical copies. I still do have a book shelf with dozens of books on them, and I will continue to buy hard copies in the future. But the way I read it no longer dictates if or what I read.

So if you are one of those who is of the opinion that physical copies are the only ‘authentic’ way to read a book, I would urge you to reconsider. If you are someone who has been considering getting an e-book reader but has not been sure, I strongly recommend you to take that next step and get it. You will be extremely satisfied with your decision. And if you are someone with a Kindle already, you will know what I have been talking about till now.

As far as recommendations go, I would personally recommend the Kindle Paperwhite ($119) over the Kindle Basic ($69). The primary (and maybe only) differentiator is the backlight in the Paperwhite version which makes the reading experience significantly better generally, while also allowing you to read in the dark. I also find that there is absolutely nothing of extra value in the Kindle Discovery ($199). The next generation of Kindle that will have any real value addition would be the one where they introduce color. But till then, the Kindle Paperwhite is more than a satisfying product. (I do not have any experience reading on the B&N Nook, so I offer no opinion on it.)

So please, go ahead and build your reading habit. This world needs a lot more book readers to prevent the mass lowering of IQ. Regardless of whether it is teenage vampire fiction or a William Gibson novel, or a book on the art of making craft, please go ahead and read. And if getting a Kindle is going to help it (well, duh!), then please go and get one. It will be a great investment for you and all your family members.

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PS: As an FYI, I still do not find the act of reading books on the computer/laptop a satisfying experience. It still strains my eyes and, though the latest formats (.epub etc.) have done a good job of replicating the physical book look, my reading habit would have taken a negative hit if I had to go down this path.