The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda follows the young Lieutenant Reiko Himekawa of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Homicide Division as she investigates a string of strange murders that might include her as the next victim.
Like many other mystery lovers, I'm a big fan of the police procedural. Most of my experience has been with series set in North America and the British Isles, with a smattering of Scandinavian and French thrown in as well. Looking further east, I've explored the inner workings of the Shanghai Police Department through the lovely, meditative fiction of Qiu Xiaolong. But, not until Tetsuya Honda's excellent slam bang, The Silent Dead, have I had the joy of becoming immersed in the gritty reality of homicide investigation in Japan.
Reiko Himekawa is a 29-year-old lieutenant with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police's Homicide Department. Having made lieutenant at a relatively young age, without the help of political or family connections, she trades on her intuition and mental toughness—coupled with an intrepid attitude towards both personal and professional danger—to crack an impressive number of cases. The grisly discovery of a viciously mutilated corpse in a residential district begins the case of a serial killer, whose exploits lead Reiko’s squad to the lurid horrors of an elusive website, whispered of by those in the know as Strawberry Night (also the book’s original Japanese title).
The murder mystery is intricately plotted and expertly paced, with twists and flashbacks that leave you second-guessing your own instincts. But, where The Silent Dead really shines is in its ability, first, to display a police and professional culture entirely alien to what I'm used to.
Private vehicles and sidearms are rarities in the world of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. One police officer grovels to a criminal in order to pursue a professional lead, another bullies or bribes everyone in his path, and all this is considered business as usual.
Then, there is the bonding expected of all squad members. I'm familiar with Japan's hard-drinking salaryman culture, but for some reason, I didn't expect it to extend to the police corps. In this scene, Reiko and her squad are getting drunk one evening after work. One of her associates, Ioka, has been quite vocal about his romantic interest in her, while her underling, Kikuta, is ordinarily happy to let the tension between himself and Reiko smolder, despite encouragement from everyone else in the squad, including Reiko herself:
“Did you hear what I said, you jerk?” yelled Kikuta, pushing Ioka out the way as he sat down heavily next to Reiko. Still clapping her napkin, Reiko gave a convulsive nod of her head, then another and another and another. It wasn't clear if Kikuta was responding to Reiko's nodding when he put an arm around her shoulders and dragged her forcefully toward him. Far from resisting, she leaned into him and kept right on nodding. With one arm wrapped around her and a tankard clutched in his other hand, Kikuta sat there and slowly drank his beer. Off to the side, Ioka sniveled about what an unfair place the world was, before falling asleep and starting to snore.
“God, what a bunch of misfits,” said Yuda with a rueful grin. “Things could get interesting if any of them remember this tomorrow.”
Of course, no one does, and this professional culture, so different from what I expect of police units elsewhere in the world, is both fascinating and excellently depicted. Another aspect that was foreign to me was the levels of sexual harassment Reiko was subject to as a matter of course. While her team was solidly behind her, some of the treatment she received from professional rivals took my breath away. It’s easy to deduce that this was a natural, if unfortunate, progression of the culture she grew up in, with family pressure to marry and fulfill her role as dutiful daughter.
Mr. Honda deals with Reiko’s position as a woman at conflict with her surroundings with a remarkable sensitivity, particularly when considering the trauma that set her on her career path to begin with:
Reiko had to admit that she wasn't the only person to have suffered. Still, she'd suffered more than anyone else. No one could deny that. She had worked hard to find a way of living life that made sense to her, and she wanted the rest of her family to respect the choices she had made. So maybe what made her happy was different than other women. She had joined the police, become a detective, made lieutenant in Homicide. And because of that, she felt fully and completely alive. Was it selfish of her to want them to try to understand that? Did she need to painstakingly spell out all the whys and wherefores before they would accept the life choices she had made?
Mr. Honda’s sensitivity to emotions and nuance is also apparent in his treatment of other characters in the book, from Reiko’s greatest professional rival right down to the serial killer. I cried my eyes out about halfway through the book, at the point where Reiko first comes to understand what it means to be a member of the police force, in what is one of The Silent Dead’s most powerful scenes.
I had mixed emotions about the ending, to be honest. It wasn’t that it was unsatisfactory—it very much was, and left me very eager to read the next book—I guess I’m just used to the triumph of the individual hero in the Western narrative, so having something acutely different takes a while to wrap my brain around.
Putting my own comfort levels aside, The Silent Dead is a book that isn’t afraid to plumb the depths of the psyche, revealing flaws in our heroes and valor in our villains. It’s as shockingly vital and messy as the blood that the serial killer draws in order to escape a muted life of black and white, but is saved from any hint of the gratuitous by a unique empathy and some really great story-telling.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.