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The Informer
By Akimitsu Takagi
Soho. 272 pp. $22.00

Honeymoon to Nowhere
By Akimitsu Takagi
Soho. 277 pp. $12.00

Reviewed by Katy Munger, the author of seven mystery novels, the most recent of which is "Money to Burn: A Casey Jones Mystery."

Sunday, July 25, 1999

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Police procedurals can provide a fascinating look at the moral heart of a society: How much is tolerated or compromised in the pursuit of justice when the curtain is drawn and no one is looking? Two newly released English translations of novels by Japanese crime author Akimitsu Takagi give us just such a look at Japan in the mid-'60s – an era when many Japanese struggled with the same issues of identity and materialism that Americans are examining today. These parallels add a layer of relevancy to Takagi's entertaining tales.

Both "Honeymoon to Nowhere" and "The Informer" reveal how tradition and custom underpin Japan's tightly controlled society. But these books also detail what goes on inside the hearts and minds of those whose destinies are warped by these same rigid forces. The inevitable conflict between society and the individual is often brutal – and inevitably moving.

Both books track State Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima and his detective colleagues over the course of a murder case. Investigatory techniques, interrogation methods and legal maneuverings are detailed with satisfying realism. But wrapped around the investigations are slick plots almost sensationalistic in tone, with all the trappings of the classic whodunit: mysterious characters, multiple motives, red herrings, unpredictable plot twists.

Takagi's style, particularly in translation, is simple, linear and bare. Transitions are sometimes abrupt. This illusion of shallowness is only a trick, one Takagi uses to open our minds to his characters: Their thoughts are complex, their yearnings deep and real. These poignant studies distinguish Takagi's books from more ordinary mysteries.

"In Honeymoon to Nowhere," Etsuko Ogata, a woman in her late twenties, faces an arranged marriage to a protege of her lawyer father. She is an obedient daughter and knows it will be a good match. She also concedes that she is growing older and plainer every day. Yet she cannot help but long for something more. When she finds that something more in the unlikely person of unassuming university professor Yoshihiro Tsukamoto, the passions awakened within Etsuko both frighten her and compel her to defy her family. Despite discovering that her beloved is hiding shameful secrets about his family that would normally make a "good" marriage impossible, Etsuko lies to her parents and claims that she is pregnant by him. A ceremony is quickly arranged. But after finding the happiness she fought so hard for, Etsuko is embroiled in a murder before her wedding night is even over. The consequences of that night change her life and character forever.

"The Informer" presents an equally intricate personality study. Shigeo Segawa is a former stock trader whose risky and illegal hedging activities have backfired on him, costing him a lucrative job and his good name. Down on his luck and shamed by the continued prosperity of friends, Segawa finds it impossible to turn down a too-good-to-be-true offer in a new field. He crosses a moral line when he accepts the job, knowing in his gut that the salary it offers cannot possibly be for the simple selling activities it purports to entail. When he learns that the job actually involves industrial espionage and taking advantage of a former schoolmate, Shoichi Ogino, Segawa rationalizes his escalating illegal activities with ever more slippery logic. Indeed, he embraces his fall with enthusiasm. Only the murder of Ogino – and Segawa's position as chief suspect – stops this moral free fall. Is Segawa at fault? Is he, indeed, the murderer? The reader is left in suspense until the end.

Takagi writes about both men and women with equal authenticity. He examines their discomfort with the roles society has imposed on them, exposes their inner fears and, most of all, explores their sexual desires. A deeply erotic strain runs through Takagi's books. His characters are often transformed by passion, searching for true romantic fulfillment as a way to find themselves in a conformist society.

Money is another big issue in Takagi's works: It establishes self-esteem and often leads to either murder or a major life change. It never brings satisfaction. Finally, grief is very real in these stories. Once a murder occurs, the reader is forced to witness the effect on the victim's loved ones. Some collapse under the grief, others commit suicide, but the pain is always evident, never experienced offstage. This technique breaks the traditional barrier of distance that many mysteries use when dealing with issues such as death and grief.

The result of Takagi's writing style and story focus is a sometimes raw and sometimes clumsy experience that nonetheless forces readers to examine uncomfortable issues about themselves: What would I have done in her place? Could I have resisted that temptation? This is a remarkable achievement for books admittedly written in the popular vein.

"Honeymoon to Nowhere" and "The Informer" are only the second and third of Akimitsu Takagi's 15 books to be translated into English. The first, "The Tattoo Murder Case," was released in the United States to much acclaim last year, mimicking the success it enjoyed in Japan when it was originally published in 1948. Takagi (1920-1995) remains one of Japan's most acclaimed crime novelists. His life encompassed many different interests (all of which found a place in his books over time). He had worked in medicine, metallurgy, writing and, later in life, was acknowledged as an expert in Japanese criminal law.

"Honeymoon to Nowhere" and "The Informer" were originally published in Japan in the mid-'60s. Both were successes, although it was "The Informer" – which was based on an actual incident – that became a runaway bestseller and established Takagi as one of Japan's most popular writers. Translation has no doubt stripped some of the nuances from these books, but both will satisfy fans of police procedurals, readers with an interest in Japan and hard-boiled enthusiasts in general. Just be forewarned: Takagi's books are unflinchingly pessimistic. You will likely be left with a sense of lingering sadness at how so many of us discover we've found happiness only at the very moment we begin to lose it.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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