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Tracking Down the Tuna : INSPECTOR IMANISHI INVESTIGATES by Seicho Matsumoto; translated by Beth Carey (Soho Press: $18.95; 314 pp.; 0-939149-28-1)

August 27, 1989|David Williams | Williams, a resident of Japan since 1968, now comments on Japanese affairs for a wide range of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, after a long career as a professional translator and interpreter. and

When the television version of "Shogun" splashed onto our screens back in 1981 (remember Richard Chamberlain poking his fingers through Japanese shogi doors), Japan buffs were keen to know whether this popular series provided a genuine slice of late medieval Japanese life. These were passionate Japanophiles, who even then could belly up to the sushi bar, and order with the best of them.

As with their food, these people were seeking the genuine article in their fiction. Since the "Shogun" boom, America's romance with things Japanese has only deepened, but the question of the genuineness of our Japonaiseries retains its relevance. This is because our neighbors across the Pacific have come to loom large in both our practical and imaginative lives.

Since it first appeared in 1961, Japanese readers have snatched up 4.5 million copies of Seicho Matsumoto's masterpiece Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand)--one of the triumphs of Japanese crime fiction. In Japanese, it is a brilliant tour de force , at once a superb thriller and a marvelous literary montage of a society caught in transition between postwar reconstruction and economic takeoff. Dickens and Balzac, writers who sought to put the whole world between two covers, would approve of Matsumoto's ambition.

Now Beth Carey's translation of "Vessel of Sand" allows the American reader to poke his own holes in the shoji of one of Japan's best loved light classics. But in rendering Matsumoto's novel into English, the translator has performed a miracle of compression.

"Inspector Imanishi Investigates" comes in 314 pages of big easy-on-the-eye print. In its most popular Japanese format, it is a 760-page double-decker in the tiny print of the cheap pocket-sized editions preferred by Japanese readers, whose spectacles, it should be noted, tend to be as thick as their pockets are small.

So in Carey we have not only a skilled translator, but a master editor who has reduced the detective genre's answer to "War and Peace" (at least in terms of length) to a single volume containing perhaps a third of the original. Purists will demur, but condensation was almost certainly the price of publication.

Was this a price worth paying? The answer depends on what you look for in your reading. But if you are a connoisseur of criminal detection with a taste for foreign settings, then "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" belongs on your book shelf next to Christie and Simenon, P. D. James and Robert Van Gulik.

The novel opens with a nervous shout, "Hey, there's a tuna!" A "tuna" is Japanese railroad slang for a body on the tracks. The image chills, for this is not pink, fluffy tuna in a can or even a slab of blood-red maguro on two fingers of rice, but the great frozen stiffs that the burly men of Tokyo's wholesale fish market can barely lift. Neatly decapitated, the tuna carcasses look as if they have been set on a rail, and then cleanly sliced by the sharpened edge of a refrigerator car wheel.

It is this image that sparks the panic reaction in the young brakeman who chances upon this grisly scene in the switching yard of a suburban Tokyo rail terminal. His revulsion, like ours, is largely in the imagination; the train under which the dead victim has been placed has yet to roll. Nevertheless, through the eyes of the brakeman, we have, in classic detective story form, discovered the body. But we are a long way from the drawing-room niceties of Miss Marple.

From this beginning, Matsumoto performs a tantalizing double unveiling act. His hero, Inspector Eitaro Imanishi, must simultaneously struggle to determine the identity of both the victim and his murderer. Though the crime was unobserved, the omniscient author ensures that very early the reader has a strong suspicion who the killer is because he goes on killing. But who was this first victim, this tuna?

For almost the whole story, murderer and victim are caught on parallel lines. Their paths appear never to have crossed. But for a succession of suicides and near-perfect crimes, the detective and the reader would never uncover the truth.

Imanishi is a crime fiction original. He combines the moral uprightness of Gulik's Judge Dee with that supreme Japanese virtue: pluck. Like P. D. James' Adam Dalgliesh, he is a skilled poet (Matsumoto's creation is the best published haiku poet ever). He has lovely quirks, including a well-cultivated weakness for bonsai plants, and a startling penchant for uncovering clues by glancing through his wife's magazines during his rare days at home.

But the overwhelming fact about Imanishi is that he is a policeman. Lacking either the intellect of Sherlock Holmes or the cold perception of Miss Marple, he plods. In the process, he makes us his partners in a crusade of detection that is its own kind of mental adventure.

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