In my review of Simon Rowe’s Pearl City: Stories from Japan and Elsewhere (2020), I wrote of the titular “Pearl City” chapter: “It’s a very satisfying story but one that leaves you wanting a full novel. We want to ride with Ms. Suzuki again.”
And that’s exactly what we get with Mami Suzuki: Private Eye, a four-chapter foray around Japan in the pleasant company of forty-something Suzuki. She’s a single mother, breadwinner for her mother and kindergarten-aged daughter. She works as a hotel receptionist by day, but finances are tight, so part-time sleuthing is a way to pay the bills.
This immensely enjoyable series of cases takes us around Japan and into the shadows of modern Japanese society. Like its engaging female protagonist, the novel is grounded without ever succumbing to nihilistic grittiness. The intimate, cleverly constructed mysteries satisfy both the heart and intellect.
The first story, a rerun from the earlier book, “Pearl City,” is set in the port city of Kobe, where Suzuki lives and works. The boss of the biggest pearl dealer in Asia calls in Ms. Suzuki to investigate a suspected case of pearl theft at his sorting facility. This story is typical of the novel in that it does not involve high-stakes deals or deadly violence, but rather explores mundane human struggles. And we’re introduced to Suzuki’s newish friend, the handsome and well-informed Teizo. He’s a retired submariner in his mid-fifties and, like Suzuki, divorced. In each story, they meet up in the early stages of the case, typically in a restaurant or bar, and he provides her with some useful background information and insights.
In the second story, “Land of the Gods,” we have what looks like a missing person case; a successful sushi chef and seemingly happy family man has disappeared – is this the result of foul play or has he simply abandoned his family and run off? To investigate, Suzuki first heads to a small local sushi joint with her friend Teizo to get a glimpse into the world of sushi chefs – “gods of the culinary world.” The pair are watching the chef prepare an assortment of raw fish:
The motion of the old chef’s blade passing effortlessly through the flesh, freeing slice after slice from the glistening fillet, had an almost hypnotic effect. He worked quietly, surely—unconcerned if anyone was watching or not, and soon a sumptuous sashimi no moriawase comprising akami (lean dark tuna), amadai (tilefish), hamachi (yellowtail), yoichi (long spiked Hokkaido sea urchin), and tsubugai (conch shell) lay before them.
That’s an example of the books cultural tourism, of giving Japanese color, even when those informative additions won’t be needed for detection further into the novel.
In search of the missing sushi master, Suzuki travels to Shimane, a sparsely populated coastal prefecture in the western part of Honshu Island. And we get lots of travel details – transport, landscapes passed, and people observed – which provide a soothing immersion into the location. We’re along for the ride.
At Okayama Station, an hour’s train-ride west of Kobe, she transferred to the Yakumo Express, an ageing diesel-powered passenger train that made the three-hour trip five times daily across the Chūgoku Sanchi mountain range to Matsue on the Sea of Japan coast.
And we get some great descriptive travel scenes, during which an obvious point struck me – writers and private detectives share the same skills of keen observation, and also a close attention to words.
While its passengers dozed, read manga comics, or scrolled for baseball highlights on their phones, the passing countryside revealed itself beneath a veil of mist. No longer verdant, it stretched out on both sides in a pale patchwork of freshly shorn fields that said the rice harvest had almost ended. Thick golden sheaves hung on drying trestles. Next would come the threshing machines, followed by the bittersweet smoke of the chaff piles cloaking the land, and finally, the last of the autumn festivals would fill the air with volleys of taiko drumbeats and the chants of half-naked men carrying portable shrines through their village streets….
The train thundered onwards, passing cow sheds with caved-in roofs, homesteads pierced by rampaging bamboo, and graveyards of rusted farm machinery….”
Later, they pulled in at Bitchu village, where elderly passengers disembarked with well-worn suitcases and paper parcels, to be met by even more ancient taxi drivers who welcomed them like old friends.
In the third story, “Sounds of the Tide,” Mami Suzuki travels south to the island of Ishigaki in the subtropical Ryukyus. She’s there to investigate a drowning incident; the sister of the deceased man is suspicious about the in-laws.
In the fourth and last story, “Isle of Cats,” we have a venerable Shinto shrine, a pregnant college student, and a runaway novice priest. Oh, and an island with a lot of cats. The ending – which I hadn’t guessed – left me with a smile on my face. Yes, that makes sense.
Human nature is more at play than clever deductions and sneaky clues in these mysteries. We get mostly happy endings yet these don’t feel contrived. Although the stories explore contemporary social problems in Japan, this is not a grim book with a broken detective sifting through societal debris – the author is not a misanthrope.
The simplicity of the detective work – conversations with suspects and those around them – might be too lightweight for genre purists, but all four stories worked for me. The author plays fair with the reader and we never feel cheated.
Mami Suzuki: Private Eye doesn’t take itself too seriously, using or discarding detective tropes as it wishes – we get drinking but no yakuza. Yes, it has a tourism, cultural guide aspect to it – but it works (well, it more than works – I found the novel’s ingredients such a winning formula, it has me thinking that Camphor Press should commission a Taiwan-based version). One of the reasons it works is that we have an all-Japanese cast, not Johnnie foreigner learning about Japan as a proxy guide for the reader. Author Simon Rowe’s long residence in Japan enables him to carry this of with an interesting and believable cross-section of society.
To end this review I’ll paraphrase the lines I started it with: It’s a very satisfying novel but one that leaves you wanting a full series. We want to ride with Ms. Suzuki again.
Mami Suzuki: Private Eye is published by Penguin Random House.