Castles of Sand
This is the first Matsumoto Seicho book I have read, and the third in the Soho Crime series that brings classics of Japanese crime fiction to a Western audience. I have been deeply impressed by the series, and consider it a hallmark for great writing and quality translations, and I know I can pick up any book in the series and be able to settle down for a good read.
“Inspector Imanishi Investigates” (original title “Suna no Utsuwa” or “Castles of Sand”) is one of the most famous of Matsumoto’s works, having been adapted twice, once as a feature film and once as a TV mini-series. First published in 1961, it was one of his “social mysteries” that deal with social issues in Japan at the time as opposed to simple murder puzzles. In this book we have the gender gap that followed the Japanese defeat in WWII, the loss of older ways and the rise of a new generation with new methods of committing crimes. Will the old-fashioned ways of solving them still work?
The story begins with a basic crime scene; a dead body is discovered, and clues are scant. Inspector Imanishi and his younger partner Yoshimura follow what lose trails they have, which is limited to an accent from a certain part of Japan and a single word “kameda”. The hunt leads them through a long path, taking months as they sort through regional accents, dusty family records, movie posters and any other thin straws they can desperately grasp to. Somehow interlinked is a group of avant-garde young Japanese intellectuals who call themselves the Nouveau, and seek to subvert the social order into something new and unique, using art, writing, music and theater. They are the black suit and beret set, completely at odds with Imanishi’s old-fashioned and simple life.
Imanishi is a fascinating character, although much different than most fictional detectives. He is no brilliant Holmes or Poirot. He is just a simple old hound dog who latches onto a trail and follows it where it goes. A lover of bonsai trees and haiku, yakiniku and hot sake, Imanishi is a simple middle aged man, not exceptional, not a rebel or rule breaker, but with a dogged sense of pursuit and the inability to give up once an idea has twitched itself in his mind. One feels bad for the old guy, tired and somewhat out of his depth, but just too stubborn to let it go. He is a very realistic character.
As far as the mystery goes, it is the perfect kind of crime for Imanishi. There are no breadcrumbs to follow, no near misses of suspects and dynamic shootouts in dark alleys, but rather hunting patiently through old records and slowly stitching together a big picture. There are a few too many coincidences, and a few too many lucky breaks fall into the inspector’s lap, but I can forgive that for all the foot work he put in. He deserves a few easy clues. The way the mystery plays out is fantastic, and I was gripped at every minute. When the “ah-ha” moment came of figuring it all out before the book revealed the end, it was very satisfying in the way that only a really good mystery can provide.