Tuesday, August 22, 2017

SIX FOUR: A NOVEL by Yokohama, Hideo (fiction)

This hefty book is an international best seller and the first book this author which has been translated into English.  It is a crime thriller, but unique in its style and tone. In Japan, it sold six million copies in six days! It was translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  The translator should be noted, as this was surely a daunting task. Meanings can be lost in translation, especially as Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate into English.  Complicating it all are the social conventions and nuances which don’t translate well. Inflections in voice can be important in Japanese, and complex thought must be handled with particular care or the meaning is lost. So kudos to Mr. Lloyd-Davies.

The narrative centers around a crime that occurred years before the story opens.  Shoko, a seven year old girl, was kidnapped in 1987;  later, compounded by police errors, she was found murdered.  For 14 years, the crime has remained unsolved.  The title of the novel comes from the way the crime is referred to in the police department.  The murder took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, which ended the Showa era which lasted for sixty-four years.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective who had worked on the case, becomes interested in it again when he hears the Police Commissioner wishes to pay a visit to Shoko's father to pay homage to the long dead child.  Mikami is particularly drawn to this case as his own daughter, Ayumi, has been missing for three months, and he and his wife live in dread of hearing of her death, especially as they have received several mysteriously silent phone calls.  Mikami, who once worked in criminal investigations, in the years since had been relegated to the position of press director. This keeps him out of the loop of crime investigations.  Any information he receives is highly controlled by his superior officers. Relations between reporters and police have a formal method to them, as do the interactions between police and victim’s families, which will seem unusual to readers used to western crime novels.

As Mikami delves deeper into the cold case file of the old murder, he begins to find discrepancies and possible cover-ups of the detectives’ handling of evidence.  Now the story becomes one of relationships and games of cat and mouse in the crime department.  Getting to the bottom of departmental corruption is compounded by the social dynamics of the characters and cultural tropes and politenesses that are not part of western crime departments. At one point Mikami muses, “The kind of people who made it to the top, the survivors, were those who kept their secrets close.  The moment you let go of them…….was the moment you lost.”

This is a rich and complex novel. The cast of characters is large and I often returned to the helpful listing of characters at the beginning of the book.  It is an intricate and unusual crime novel that cannot be placed in any ordinary category.  If the reader sticks with it, he or she will be rewarded with a brilliant work of fiction and an interesting look into the workings and everyday relationships of a Japanese police department where motives in the end are not so very different than those of the west.

Friday, August 18, 2017

DEAD WATER by Ann Cleeves (fiction)

The excellent crime and mystery writer, Ann Cleeves, has written a series of 6 books based in the moody and gray Shetland Islands.  I am reading them out of order which doesn’t seem to matter as long as you keep your time frame referenced.  In the last Cleeves book I reviewed, Jimmy Perez the Islands chief detective had recovered from his wife’s death and was on the cusp of a romance with his superior officer, Willow Reeves.  “Dead Water” is an earlier book and Perez is deeply mourning the death of his wife; he is on leave from his work, and is having trouble getting through his days and nights.  When a body is discovered on a boat in the harbor, belonging to Rhona Laing, the public prosecutor, Willow Reeves is called in to lead the investigation.  Having been born in the equally isolated beauty of the, Hebrides, she understands the nuances of life on an island.

The dead man is a London reporter who had been raised in the Shetlands.  It seems he was working on a story about the demise of the oil boom and the growth of renewable energy in the islands.  People were just beginning to invest in wind power and tidal energy.  Jerry Markham, the reporter, has a past history. It seems he bolted off to London, leaving a young pregnant girlfriend behind.  His return to home territory was unwelcome by a number of people.

As the case becomes more complicated and another death is involved, Perez cannot help being drawn into the investigation.  This involvement hastens his recovery and it isn’t long before he begins to connect events and clues which at first appearance seemed to be red herrings.

If you are looking for a good mystery with dense and detailed plotting, you can’t do much better than Ann Cleeves.  Unless you have been watching the Shetland series on PBS, you won’t guess the killer’s identity until the final pages.  The Shetlands are a perfect setting for a murder mystery.  The weather is unpredictable, often foggy and the landscape is one of bleak yet beguiling beauty.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck (fiction)

Right off, let me say I enjoyed this book.  I think the title is unfortunate, though, as it has a whiff of chick lit.  It is so much more than that.  The story is haunting and has a different approach to the aftermath of war.  Being World War II Germany, there is guilt, depravation, and survival. Besides, it is an interesting plot with secrets and their consequences.

The story opens in 1938, the threshold of the war, when Hitler is wildly and widely popular, seen as one who will make Germany great again.  Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfel are giving a party, which turns out to be a cover for Albrecht and a group of like-minded men who are plotting in a back room to assassinate Hitler.  Among the men is Martin “Connie” Fledermann a childhood friend of Maryianne (one whom she is most likely in love with).  Connie asks Marianne to be sure to take care of the the wives and children of the plotters should things go wrong, as indeed they did.  The plot failed and the men were put to death.  (This part of the book is based on a true incident).

The main part of the story takes place after the war in 1945, when Marianne, still living in the largely boarded up and abandoned castle, begins a search and rescue mission for the missing wives.  She finds Connie’s wife, Benita and then her son who had been placed in an orphanage.  Benita had been living in Berlin and badly used by the invading Russians.  Marianne brings them, badly shocked, back to Bavaria where they attempt to begin a life with her.  Around the same time, the Americans who were trying to repatriate large groups of displaced German prisoners asked Marianne to take in Ania and her two sons, who had barely survived a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Post war times were rough for the survivors and Marianne, with her strong personality, kept everyone going.  They eked out subsistence through bartering and gardening.  Marianne was rigid and strong and ran a tight ship.  Benita was beautiful, apolitical, and soft-hearted without survival skills.  Ania was resourceful and practical who as a youth had been under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda.  The secrets and trauma each character suffered are revealed as the book develops and serve to move the plot along.

The book is more than just a story of the survival of three women and their children.  It is a story of how ordinary Germans handled the war and its aftermath of guilt and confusion.  Shattuck’s characters illustrate individual responses to the horror of Hitler’s Germany.  The writing is excellent and the reader becomes caught up in the story of these women and their children who mature and move on to their own futures.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its fine writing, interesting characters, and different look at the aftermath of war.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer (fiction)

Seeing that it is high summer, I thought to read a beach book with plenty of action and not much concentration involved.  Archer first published this book in 1979 and after many many printings, he revised his novel for the 30th anniversary of the book in 2009.  This book sold more copies around the world than Gone With the Wind.  It is in its 100th printing and it is estimated that 100 million people have read it.  With that said, how could I resist!

This is the story of two men who only meet once in their lives, but that meeting changes the direction their lives take.  They were born a world apart and in vastly different circumstances on the same day.
William Lowell Kane, the son of a Boston Brahmin banker, Kane was destined for success.  Well educated and brilliant at money making, when his father died at an early age, he was a natural successor to a life in banking.  Abel Rosnovski was born under mysterious circumstances in Poland.  Early in life he was adopted by a wealthy Baron.  Though named his heir, he was imprisoned by the invading Germans in World War I and after a series of adventures escaped to America.

While they never meet, the lives of these two brilliant men of business cross again and again through the years.  Abel nurses a grudge again Kane until the final chapters of the book.  It began when Kane refused a loan to a friend of Abel.  Abel blames Kane for his friend’s suicide after he loses all in the 1929 Market crash.

The novel is dense with action; short chapters, with cliff hangers at the end of each, encourage the reader to read on.  I recognize that the book has given millions of readers pleasure, however, I am not one.  I found it to read like a television serial which one keeps on watching with all its contrivances because you want to know how it will end.  It is an easy read.  The characters are stereotypes with little depth.  The reader can predict how they will react.  However, if you are looking for a quick read with plenty of plot, you could do worse. Definitely a good choice for the beach on a lazy summer day.