Review of Tetsuya Honda’s The Silent Dead

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The Silent Dead

Tetsuya Honda

London: Titan Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781785651694

431 pp

Translated by Giles Murray

It is Tokyo in the middle of the first decade of the present century and we are in the presence of the police as they try to solve murders and other horrible crimes. In particular, we are following a young woman, Reiko Himekawa, who has reached the rank of lieutenant at the tender age of 30 and so has her own squad to command. The back cover blurb reveals the fact that there is a serial killer loose on the streets, although this does not emerge in the text until at least half way through. Still, one death never seems to be enough in books like this.

The timing of the action means that the characters have mobile phones but cannot send texts or photos to each other and so the coppers still have to put in the legwork even at the rank of lieutenant. Curiously, there do not appear to be any police cars available and so Reiko and her squad travel around by train and even taxi. Do they have to pay for this and then be recompensed later? That must be a nightmare for administration. Well, given that so many police officers here seem to use their own money in a variety of inventive ways, perhaps it is just par for the course to get the money back through the use of initiative.

This is a Japan that is on the edge of being brutal, sexist and corrupt, on a kind of casual basis. The characters also have to deal with the complications of living in a bourgeois society in which social relations can be very intense, complicated and stifling in the need for outward conformity. This is one of the reasons I enjoy Japanese crime fiction, especially when it combines these personal issues with the mundanity of everyday living, shopping, eating and travelling. Unfortunately, there is not enough of this in the book and that has the effect of reducing the credibility of the characters and the sense of really being part of the action. To be honest, in many ways this is a terrible book: the characters are one-dimensional and lack any kind of intellectual hinterland; the relationships are cliché-ridden and predictable; the plot itself does not really seem to make much sense. However, the action is brisk and the narrative zips along, which is helped by the large amounts of white space on every page. The translation is OK but a little too American for my taste – of course, there is a strong American influence on Japanese culture and, besides, no one really cares what I think.

My impression whenever visiting Japan is that the exaggerated manners people use in every social interaction and the care which people take in avoiding each other on the street are symptoms of the inner rage each feels about everyone else and that resembles British society. Both countries seem to be the source of a great deal of crime fiction and that is the dark side of the external politeness. Crime fiction is found everywhere, of course, although I imagine that American crime is often the result of gun culture and the everyday failures of capitalism, French crime considers the fundamental impossibility of tolerating the other and Chinese crime relates to the contradictions between authoritarianism and human aspirations. No doubt a more penetrating evaluation of this issue would provide more grounded and profound insights.

Despite its flaws, The Silent Dead overall is a pleasant romp and the cover claims that more than one million copies have been sold, which is quite an achievement. People who like this kind of thing will like this book.

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