book: All She Was Worth (1992; trans 1996 Alfred Birnbaum) by Miyuki Miyabe

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Tokyo cop Shunsuke Honma is in the midst of a few months’ sick leave to recover from being shot in the knee in the line of duty. A distant cousin begs him, as a favor, to track down the cousin’s fiancée Shoko Sekine, who has suddenly vanished from sight on it being discovered she has a bankruptcy in her past. Reluctantly, because of his gammy leg and because, as a widower, he’d rather use his sick leave to spend time with young son Makoto, Honma agrees to take on a case that soon proves to be one of identity theft: the woman who disappeared was not the real Shoko Sekine but someone else who stole her name and her past, and much else . . .

I have rather mixed feelings about this novel, which I found for the most part engrossing but on rather too frequent occasion a bit turgid. The two sections of maximum turgidity are unfortunately important for the reader’s comprehension of the book. The first such section — an extended explanation of how identity is legally and otherwise recognized in Japan, which differs from the way it’s done in most other parts of the world — is essential for Western readers. The second, longer but in itself more interesting, concerns the history of credit-card use in Japan, and the revelation of the way that credit-card-induced debt has thoroughly corrupted society, with the civilized debt-collectors of the banks and credit agencies being part of the same spectrum as the thugs of the loan sharks and yakuza into whose clutches too many credit-card debtors sooner or later fall. As I say, this account is potentially pretty interesting, but it’s presented as a sort of solid lump that had me rolling my eyes a little.

The other worry I had was that a lot of the conclusions Honma comes to — or that the members of the little team of volunteers he assembles come to — seem to be based more on inspired guesswork or even Honma’s coply instincts than on actual evidence-based deduction. It’s all very well for detectives (or anyone else) to produce hypotheses based on what they’ve found out; but in good detective or police-procedural novels, as in real life, a good many of those hypotheses should fall by the wayside or be positively misleading.

And yet, as I say, All She Was Worth, aided by Alfred Birnbaum’s very serviceable translation, is for the most part pretty compelling reading. I enjoyed spending time with Honma, who’s a very engaging character, and I grew to like some of the team he gathered, such as Tamotsu, the auto mechanic who was sweet on Shoko when they were both highschoolers and whose wife has told him he must work with Honma or otherwise she’ll never be rid of his past. Makoto, who helps out on odd occasion, is a likable kid, a nicely portrayed character whose presence often made me smile. Ah, we old softies.

Another strength is that, even as we develop a sympathy for the victim, Shoko, we also develop a grudging sympathy for the criminal who stole her identity, however appalling that individual’s actions, because she too is in her way a victim — but of criminals who’ll never be apprehended for any crime.

When we in the West think of the “sordid underbelly” of Japan, that superficially squeaky-clean society, with all its jangle and color, we tend to ignore things like the whaling and the capital punishment and conjure up images of murderous yakuza gangs, their cruelty and the corruption they inevitably bring. But in All She Was Worth Miyuki Miyabe presents us with another, only slightly overlapping view of what can erode a society. At the same time, she’s presenting us with a mirror in which only the most insensitive could fail to see some of the flaws that plague our own culture.

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