Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Six FourSix Four by Hideo Yokoyama
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to get through this one. It's not because it's boring or badly written, but because it's a big book. I mean literally big: 635 pages and mine is the heavy hard cover version. I travel a lot and I could not make myself bring the book with me, as it would have doubled the weight of my carry-on, although it would have been good reading on long flights (like the ones I took on a Japan trip during this reading). The fact that I had to take several breaks from the book made it harder, as the story is really quite complicated. Or stories, I should say, as there are several going on in parallel.

At the heart of it is a kidnap-murder case that took place 14 years earlier and where the trail has gone cold. This story is quite interesting and complex in itself, with a surprising twist at the end. A parallel story to this is that the protagonist Mikami's daughter has vanished and this is naturally putting a huge strain on Mikami and his wife Minako.

Here's another thing that makes it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. To name a few, so the protagonist is Mikami and his spouse is Minako who has a friend Mizuki; while in the office Mikami's assistant is Mikumo and the assistant chief is Mikura. Now, I know that in Japanese these are entirely different names but reading in English we don't have the benefit of the kanji characters that would keep them separate. And in the end, it turns out that the phonetic similarities have a meaning to the story.

Back to the story, the main complication to the plot is that it mostly focuses on the internal strife within the prefectural police department where Mikami is press director. Here again there are parallel plots. There's been a cover-up related to police missteps during the cold case kidnap-murder, which the different sides use as a weapon against each other, the sides being the Criminal Investigations and the Administrative Affairs divisions. Mikami, a former detective and still one at heart, has been sidelined to Administrative Affairs and thus lands in the middle of the infighting, with conflicted loyalties. There's a threat of the police commissioner from the National Police Agency in Tokyo to come down and take over the Criminal Investigations division, which would be an enormous catastrophe to the pride and minds of the local police.

At the same time, there is unexpected tumult in the press relations, which Mikami (and Mikumo and the two others in the team) has to manage. The press representatives are depicted as rather vulgar savages out for blood and the press briefings, some lasting the entire night, turning into shouting matches where the press assaults the officers hauling insults and sometimes getting physical (it's interesting because the author used to be an investigative reporter). This takes a toll on Mikami who at the same time has to conduct his own investigations, try to prevent damage from the commissioners visit, partake in the departmental intrigue, try to manage his career and marriage etc. You get the point: he's one stressed out dude.

For a Western reader, the fights within the police department and with the press may seem like a storm in a tea cup. The cover-up is a bigger deal, but the rest of it is about things that could be seen as rather trivial. Yet, Mikami (and the author Yokoyama) makes a huge deal of it -- in fact, this is the main reason to the book's length. A huge amount of space is dedicated to these plots and to the mixed ponderings inside Mikami's conflicted mind (see, this is a psychological thriller). What they do reveal, though, are the machismo and pride and the fear of losing face that define Japanese salaried men. And the fact that you are entirely defined by your work and loyalty to your office is seen as paramount. Even generations of former Criminal Investigations directors are drawn into the plot and their years of retirement have not lessened their partiality or investment in departmental intrigue. In other countries, Mikami would have already called it quits, but he might as well kill himself if he had to leave the police force (although his thinking evolves during the book and he starts to see life priorities in a slightly clearer light). This is not exaggerated, I'm sure, and it's all very interesting. But these sections are just too long, there is a lot of repetition, and a huge number of characters who are hard to keep straight in one's mind -- and they distract from the fascinating investigations.

It's not that the book is boring. It's actually well written and has a certain amount of suspense. The translator, Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, has done an admirable job and the language flows naturally. Maybe I would give it another star had I just read it in one go spending a weekend on the sofa with a pot of coffee and, perhaps, pen and paper to remind me of who each of the characters was and what they stood for.

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