Friday, March 6, 2020

A Quiet Place: Seicho Matsumoto

When I finished this novel, my first opinion was that it was a very strange book. It was a combination of a psychological study with crime fiction elements. Sort of a suspense novel, very slow, and definitely not a thriller, except at the very end. Some of the elements were very good, and others just did not work for me.

As the book opens, Tsuneo Asai is away from home, at a conference with a new director general in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. During the evening dinner, Asai gets a telephone call and is informed that his wife, Eiko, has died unexpectedly. Although he is shocked, his first thought is how to leave the director general with the support he needs, before he returns to his home in Tokyo. It is evident throughout the story that Asai's primary concern in his life is his job and rising through the ranks to a higher position.

Asai and his wife have an unusual relationship. Although Eiko is in her thirties, she has had a heart attack in the past and she is worried about having another one, so she avoids sexual relations, which was never a large part of their relationship. Asai works and Eiko has her artistic pursuits, which sometimes take her out of the home during the afternoon. Asai believes that both of them are content with this situation.

Eiko's death occurred while she was walking in an area in Tokyo that Asai is not familiar with. After her death, which is clearly just a heart attack, Asai gradually begins to question why Eiko was out in that neighborhood when she died. He visits the cosmetics shop she was in when she died, questions the shop owner, and is suspicious of some of her responses. Thus he continues his investigations.

Asai is an excellent investigator for an amateur but it does take months to follow up on various leads, and at one point he gives up entirely for a while. Eventually he hires a private investigator, using a false name and address. He is afraid of being open about what he is doing as it might reflect badly on him in his job. Although Asai is keeping up with his work, it is almost like he has two personalities, the one that only cares about his work and his position there, and the one that craves closure on what his wife had been doing.

At this point I was unsure where the book was going. Not even Asai suspects foul play with regards to his wife's death, he just thinks that his wife was deceiving him, and he wants to know why. And soon there is an unexpected twist and the tension (and the pace) increases in the later half of the book.

In the end, I did not find this an entirely satisfying crime fiction read. My biggest complaint was that I did not feel any connection to the main character. However, the story does provide a detailed look into Japanese life at the time (1975). The customs, behaviors in the work environment, and above all the importance of saving face and doing things in the correct way. From what I have read about the author, he is very good at doing that in all his books, and his main goal was to examine the psychology behind the crime. This novel is well worth reading. At this time there are only three other novels by Matsumoto that have been translated into English, and I intend to read those also.

My husband's review at Goodreads:
Tsuneo Asai is a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He lives for his job and, in fact, has little else in his life. Asai’s wife Eiko, a withdrawn and quiet heart attack survivor, has little affection for or interest in her husband, a fact that doesn’t really bother him. Eiko dies (in fact, she has died as the book opens) and Asai unexpectedly becomes obsessed with the circumstances of her death and the titular “quiet place” - an upscale Tokyo neighborhood of mansions, couples’ hotels, and a small cosmetics boutique that is seldom open and has few customers - where her body was found. Author Seicho Matsumoto keeps this elegantly-plotted and relatively brief mystery on a slow boil from start to finish. Excellent.
See other reviews at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, Mysteries Ahoy!, The Japan Society, and His Futile Preoccupations.

Also see this very interesting article about the author written by one of his editors: An Honest Look at Matsumoto Seicho.


Publisher:   Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 (orig. pub. 1975)
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai 
Length:       235 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Setting:       Tokyo, Japan
Genre:        Crime fiction
Source:       Borrowed from my husband.


Margot Kinberg said...

Thanks, as ever, Tracy, for the candid review. I'm sorry to hear that this one wasn't what you'd hoped it might be. I read another by the same author - Inspector Imanishi Investigates - and enjoyed it. That one's much more of a police procedural, and I think you might enjoy it more. The plot has focus, etc., and I think you might find it more to your liking. Like this one, it has an interesting look at life in parts of Japan (but earlier - in the '60s). That said, I do know what you mean about not feeling a connection to a main character. I don't like it when that happens, either.

TracyK said...

Margot, my husband has a copy of Inspector Imanishi Investigates and I have a copy of another of Matsumoto's books, Points and Lines, so I hope to read one or both of those some time this year.

col2910 said...

Another one I can probably steer clear, though I do hope to enjoy some Japanese crime fiction this year.

TracyK said...

I agree, Col, I think you can find other Japanese crime fiction that will suit you better. Although, I am far from an expert on Japanese crime fiction.

Rick Robinson said...

I tried this a dozen years ago, and only read about 40 pages before giving it up.

TracyK said...

Rick, I am not surprised. Later, after writing this review, I wondered why I had not wanted to quit reading at some point. Throughout I was intrigued by what was going on, why he was investigating, what he would find. But in the end, I was disappointed. Except for the vivid look at Japanese life, at least from his perspective.

Clothes in Books said...

Interesting criticisms, but also it would be so fascinating reading something set in Japan of that era, because of how little I know about Japan.

TracyK said...

Moira, this is a book well worth reading because of the look at Japanese life, and many readers liked it better than I did. I have another of his books published in 1957, Points and Lines, and I will be reading that for comparison. Also Glen has Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961), which I will also try.

Anonymous said...

Rick Robinson, I wonder if have this book confused with another, because it was only published in English in 2016. Or did you try reading it in the original Japanese?