A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto is a Japanese psychological thriller that dissects Japanese society (Available in English translation August 16, 2016).
Originally published in Japanese in 1975 and now being released in a new English translation, Seicho Matsumoto’s suspense novel follows the life of Tsuneo Asai, a 42-year-old middle-management civil servant who lives in Tokyo. Asai is a quietly efficient, unassuming man, who is good at his work and seems to have little need for passion and interest in things outside of the ministry department in which he is employed.
At the beginning of the story, Asai is in his second marriage—both of his wedded unions childless. His current wife is in her mid-30s. Their marriage was set up by a matchmaker. There isn’t much romance or sexual fire between Asai and his wife, and she appears to him to be a shy, withdrawn kind of woman, but he is content with her and their relations. When she suffers a heart attack and tells him that their already unremarkable sex life will have to come to a near standstill so that she won’t have to risk another coronary, he accepts this.
While Asai is out of town on a business trip, he learns that his wife has died suddenly. She had a second heart attack, and this one killed her. The news of the cardiac arrest is not shocking to Asai, despite his wife’s young age, because of her previous attack. But, what is strange to him is the fact that she had this coronary and died while in a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to him and that he didn’t know she ever visited.
Asai starts to look into what his spouse was doing in the area on the day of her death. What begins as a mild curiosity becomes an obsession, as he gradually comes to realize that his wife had been leading a double life unknown to him—these activities had everything to do with why she was in that particular part of the city on the day of her death. Moreover, it seems quite possible that her clandestine doings might have directly caused her passing.
Asai’s investigation, along with details he learns from a private detective he hires, leads him to focus squarely on two people who might have had some role in his wife’s secret existence and death: a woman who runs a high-end cosmetics shop in the neighborhood, this store being the place Asai’s wife allegedly stumbled into while suffering the heart attack; and a man who lives in the area and has business, and possibly personal, relations with the shopkeeper. Asai becomes convinced that these two people were players in his wife’s private life and that they may have played roles in her death—or they at least know more about all of this than they are telling. He begins investigating them closely, to the point of stalking them.
The novel is written in a subdued way. There’s a kind of plodding rhythm and monotonous tone to it, at least in the early chapters. Yet, the dull feel of the first parts of the book is intriguing, as it comes across that Matsumoto wrote it that way deliberately. The unexciting aura of the first chapters capture the personality and lifestyle of Asai, who is an unexciting man. When the tale begins to turn as Asai learns more and more about his wife’s covert doings and these people who seemed to have been part of that, the tension builds in an effective way and nicely offsets the less suspenseful parts of the book. It’s a slow burn read, one that quietly inches its way in the direction of a dangerous climax, as the modest government employee becomes fixated on learning about his wife’s second life and the truth behind the events that led to her untimely death.
The book’s first two paragraphs illustrate its dry tone:
Tsuneo Asai was on a business trip to the Kansai region when he heard the news.
Around 8:30 in the evening, he was having dinner and drinks in the banquet room of a high-class restaurant with businessmen from the food processing industry. Asai was a section chief in the Staple Food Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He’d arrived in Kobe the day before, accompanying the ministry’s brand-new director general on a tour of inspection. It had only been a month since Director-General Shiraishi had been promoted from a different department, and he wasn’t very familiar with the practicalities of the job as yet. For the past couple of days, he and Asai had been visiting canning facilities and ham-processing plants in the Osaka-Kobe area, and were off to Hiroshima the next day. This evening they were enjoying the hospitality of some of the local business owners.
The drabness of Asai’s life is driven home further when we see his reaction to getting a phone call informing him of his wife’s sudden death back in Tokyo. He initially seems more concerned with how he can have his business trip duties covered if he goes back home immediately than he is about the news of his wife’s passing.
Later, when Asai has started to learn about his wife’s second life, Matsumoto’s omniscient narrator nicely captures Asai’s mindset during his investigations with this passage, which focuses on Asai’s attempt to understand if his wife had been having an affair:
He tried to see her in this new light, but as she’d always been at home when he came back from work, it was impossible to imagine. His personal experience of living with his wife was in total contrast to the unsavory image in his head.
Was it his attempt to see things in a positive light? Or just the bravado of a man who didn’t want to play the role of cuckolded husband?
Matsumoto (1909-92), a popular writer in Japan if not a household name in other parts of the world, reached for much more than whodunit intrigue in his suspense novels. Like a Japanese Balzac, he sought to capture a whole panorama of the society around him in these stories. In A Quiet Place, he uses the mystery of Asai’s wife’s death as a means of exploring things like: the kind of relationship that can happen between a couple whose marriage was set up by a matchmaker; the friction between a civil servant’s career aspirations and personal life when there is some upheaval in the latter; and the prevailing temperaments and attitudes of various people from his country.
Although we never encounter her in the present, the character of Asai’s deceased wife is a rich one—she was a seemingly humble, dispassionate woman who Asai realizes too late actually had strong desires and talents. She practiced the writing of haiku and, while Asai assumed this was just something for a housewife to engage in as a pastime, he learns after her death that she was a talented poet who was envied by other haiku artists who knew her work. People who knew her remark to Asai how beautiful and desirable she was becoming as she reached her mid-30s, when he always thought of her as average looking. And then, there’s the fact that she was having a whole lifestyle unknown to him, involving the two mystifying people from the strange neighborhood and possibly a secret romance.
Another plus in the novel is Matsumoto’s depiction of Asai. The story’s protagonist comes off as neither sympathetic nor loathe-worthy, just average. This makes him believable. He never set out to bother the lives of others. He could have been content to just go on doing his government work and leading his humble lifestyle, if not for the great disruption that comes into his life in the wake of his wife’s death.
But, when his routines are shaken up and he has to face the fact that his spouse had been deceiving him, he suddenly begins losing control of himself and is no longer the steady, reliable man he’s always been. As Matsumoto zeroes in on the ways that Asai’s current situation is affecting his government work, the tension becomes nearly unbearable.
Also, in the relationship Matsumoto shows Asai to have had with his wife, coupled with what he learns about her after her death, he brings out a universal truth key to many human alliances: that the people we know, even those closest to us in our everyday lives, might be leading double lives unknown to us.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that there’s too much observation from the narrator. The teller of the story not only explains too much of what’s happening, but often repeats bits and pieces we have already learned. Matsumoto could have cut about a fifth of the narration out and the reader would have still understood everything that happened, resulting in a tighter story with better movement. Nonetheless, overall, A Quiet Place is a book that works well, both as a page turner suspense story and an enlightening social literary novel.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.