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  • A Quiet Place |  Seicho Matsumoto
Quiet Place reviews

Publishers Weekly-starred review:

Why would a woman with a serious heart condition risk her health by climbing a steep hill in an area where she knew no one? That conundrum obsesses Japanese bureaucrat Tsuneo Asai, the hero of this stellar psychological thriller from Matsumoto (Inspector Imanishi Investigates). Asai, a section chief in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is on a business trip with his boss when word reaches him that his wife, Eiko, who had a heart condition, has died suddenly in Tokyo. Despite the emotional distance in their relationship, the tragedy is a shock to Asai, though not enough to make him put aside his professional obligations before he arranges travel home. Asai questions the official version of her death—that she suffered a heart attack in the street, and collapsed inside a nearby cosmetics store—and figures out that her fatal collapse was triggered by Eiko overexerting herself elsewhere. His pursuit of the truth becomes all-consuming, building to a surprising and immensely satisfying resolution that flows naturally from the book’s complex characterizations. Readers will agree that Matsumoto (1909–1992) deserves his reputation as Japan’s Georges Simenon.

 

Spectator:

There's an element of the exquisite poetic Haiku form in the book, in the details that turn the story in new directions, and the tiniest mistakes that lead to tragic and unforeseen outcomes.

 

Eurocrime:

What a pleasant surprise! Considered one of the most important (and prolific) writers of crime fiction in his native Japan, this is only the fourth novel from Seicho Matsumoto to be published in English (and the first to originate from a UK publisher). Well-chosen by Bitter Lemon too, showing another side (at least to this UK reader) of Matsumoto’s talent.

Matsumoto first wrote prize-winning mainstream and historical fiction, then experimented with crime in short story form (some, including The Face, considered the best short story of its year by the Mystery Writers of Japan, are collected in THE VOICE, published in the USA in 1989). In 1957 he published the ground-breaking POINTS AND LINES (1970 in US), a rare combination in Japan at that time of a crime story laced with acute social observation, often critical, of the society that surrounded him, a form he would champion throughout his life (he died in 1992). The book was a huge success, broadening the appeal of crime fiction throughout Japan. In the early 60s he wrote both what became in English INSPECTOR IMANISHI INVESTIGATES (Soho Crime US,1989), and PRO BONO, which took over 50 years before it became available in English (Vertical US, 2012). The first is a classic of painstaking police detective work, the latter both a mystery and a raging indictment (in the Japanese manner) of aspects of the Japanese justice system.

Now comes A QUIET PLACE (1975) written during a later period of Matsumoto’s career. Tsuneo Asai, a middle ranking civil servant working in a far from glamorous role in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is on a business trip with his boss when a phone call from his sister-in-law tells him that Eiko, his wife, eight years his junior and with a history of heart trouble, has died of a sudden heart attack. First ensuring that his boss is not inconvenienced in his absence, he immediately returns to Tokyo. After the funeral he visits the cosmetics shop where his wife collapsed and died. It’s in a quiet suburb of Tokyo that, suspiciously, Eiko had never mentioned to him “ever”. He starts to ask questions.

From these low-key even mundane ingredients Matsumoto slowly builds a fascinating tale. Tsuneo, for example, at first appears to have much in common with the “nondescript” but dogged detective Torigai of POINTS AND LINES, and the “worn-out” Inspector Imanishi. But here his quest, pursued with quiet, painstaking intelligence, is filled out by a great deal more personal detail. His deference to authority, and to his wife’s ill-health, his morality (Japanese sexual mores are explored in some detail), his driving ambition (but within the established hierarchy), all add up, given the later noir-ish developments in the novel, to an individual irrevocably caught within an unforgiving social system. He is far from, say, the amoral protagonists of Patricia Highsmith.

That said, the later twists in the tale and Tsuneo’s actions surrounding them, shows him in a much more calculating light. Note too that an action that sets the plot in motion at the start of the novel, is also key to the ending. Can you spot what it is?

A worthwhile crime novel and one that lives up to Matsumoto’s reputation as a keen critic of his country’s social mores. Let us hope that Bitter Lemon will continue to explore and make available more of his work.

 

 

Morning Star:

The left-wing writer Seicho Matsumoto, who died in 1992, is still revered as Japan’s most important crime novelist of the modern school and one of the founders of the form in Japan.

A Quiet Place (Bitter Lemon, £8.99) is a psychological suspense story, concerning a repressed civil servant who learns, while accompanying his fast-track boss on a business trip, that his wife has died of a heart attack.

There are details of the tragedy which puzzle Tsuneo. But the more he uncovers about his seemingly unadventurous wife’s hidden life, the more trouble he gets himself into.

Matsumoto is celebrated for steering Japanese crime fiction away from traditional whodunnits into fiction which illuminated 20th-century Japanese society by dissecting the reactions of mostly unexceptional characters to its contradictions and hypocrisies.

This gracefully constructed story, first published in 1975, is a fine example of his craft. 

 

Durango Telegraph:

A spare and determinedly noir story, as only the Japanese can tell, of a very ordinary middle-management Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry worker who received a phone call while on a business trip advising farmers that his taciturn, unaffectionate wife has been discovered dead from a heart seizure in a cosmetics boutique in a tony red-light district of Tokyo.

Tsuneo Asai is not happy with the circumstances of his wife’s death and so begins an investigation during his very spare time between obsequious attention to his career advancement. He suspects his wife of having an affair, which indeed he confirms. Asai follows his wife’s paramour by train to the sanatorium where his wife is a patient, and in the woods a short walk from the train station, he kills Konosuke Kubo by bashing his skull with three rocks. He sets off in the dark, walking back to the train station to return to Tokyo. One car only comes along the country road, stops, picks him up and takes him to the train station.

Everything develops seamlessly. Asai resumes his dedicated occupation at the Ministry. Then comes a request for Asai to address the farmer’s union of the prefecture where he killed Kubo and was given a lift to the station by two farmers.

No drama, no histrionics. A story of the composed face of honor as it slowly crumbles from unseen cracks. This is a terrific, short book by one of Japan’s literary treasures.

 

CrimeChronicles:

Nothing combines indulgence, conformity and obedience as well as karaoke.  The Japanese word ‘karaoke’ means listen.  Karaoke contains discovery, excitement and reciprocal polite gestures.  The fun is obligatory.  Japan is the most well behaved capitalist society in the world.  ‘Manners maketh man’ is the motto of Winchester College and New College Oxford.  They do more than that.  In Japan they help reduce the crime rate to something well below what happens in other capitalist societies.  Crime is manageable for a police force and judiciary that are not considered competent by locals.  Manners can mean self-effacement and missed opportunities but they can also determine what follows.  Manners inform decisions, and decisions determine subsequent events.

A Quiet Place is a fine crime novel and a welcome addition to the exceptional international list of Bitter Lemon Press.  The crime that is committed in the novel is a surprise.  For a while this reader expected the criminal to be the victim. The crime is a consequence of when manners are forgotten, when temper rules. What follows is fate, and timid obedient men can shape fate as much as the confident and the assertive. 

In his life author Seicho Matsumoto was prolific.  He wrote forty novels and hundreds of short stories and essays.  Six of his novels have been filmed.  If the others are half as good as A Quiet Place then Matsumoto was special.  Comparisons have been made with Elmore Leonard, the great thriller writer from the United States.   The Japanese may like Elvis for karaoke but as they say at Winchester College, ‘manners maketh the man’.  Japan is different from the United States. 

A Quiet Place shares the sensibility of Georges Simenon. The style is different and the writing has more depth and detail but the French writer also described modest lives consisting of work that was endured and gratification that was best not discussed.  Problems arose from the inevitable secrecy and private desires.  Simenon was also prolific.  He was obliged to scratch the surface of ordinary lives and pick at the frustration and the hypocrisy.

The opening chapter of A Quiet Place describes a meal between businessmen and civil servants.  Geishas are present.  This odd mix of duty and indulgence defines the responsibility and entitlement of the Japanese male.  Words and gestures are circumscribed by careers and business.   The good news about karaoke is that people keep their clothes on.

In A Quiet Place two people take their clothes off in front of each other and in private.  Various factors play their part in what follows.  These include ignorance, fate, paranoia, ego, timidity, incompetence, self-destruction and irony. All these factors are affected by how the characters understand the boundaries in Japanese life and their obligations.  The extent to which each factor determines the outcome is not obvious.  A very different tension prevails in A Quiet Place because the place is, of course, not quiet.  The tension requires a mastery of plot and characterisation and an understanding of the formalities in Japanese society.  A Quiet Place will stay in the mind of the reader long after the book has been finished.  By Howard Jackson.

 

 

Shots:

The San Francisco Chronicle compared Matsumoto most oddly to Rex Stout and Elmore Leonard, neither of whom write at all like Matsumoto.  For this novel Patricia Highsmith would seem apposite, for once we get to the crime (after 164 pages) we watch the killer fall apart, doing everything wrong and laying a trail where there was no trail before.

Businessman Tsuneo Asai led a quiet life until his younger wife died suddenly of a heart attack.  That of itself was not suspicious but why was she where she was when she died?  At first sight it seemed to be a street leading nowhere in particular, but in a part of town she would not only never visit but which she would avoid.  When Asai goes to the spot he finds things not quite as he would expect.  Something’s wrong but he can’t quite put his finger on what.  He asks questions, doesn’t like the answers, and starts a fuller investigation.

He is no crime story hero: he has no secret life, isn’t tough, but is a previously respectable businessman – and much of the pleasure of this book comes from experiencing everyday Japanese life as it really is (or was: this book was originally written in 1975) with, to western eyes, astonishing deference and stylish courtesies.  Matsumoto has also been called Japan’s Simenon and in Japan his books have sold in the millions.  A Quiet Place is slow, impeccably translated, and a useful introduction into a different kind of crime novel. 

 

 Shots II:

First published in Japanese in 1975, this novel tells the story of Tsuneo Asai, a civil servant whose wife Eiko dies unexpectedly while he is away on business. Apart from the shock of her sudden death, Asai is puzzled by the circumstances of his wife’s death. What was she doing in a part of the city where he would never expect her to go? Over the following weeks, what could have happened to Eiko preys more and more on Asai’s mind.  As he investigates, he begins to discover that she has been leading a double life and with each new discovery he makes, his life and his mental state slowly begin to change. He believes his life to be a respectable, if rather ordinary one while his marriage is solid. The fact that his wife died in a disreputable part of town is almost incomprehensible to him.

Matsumoto is an unfamiliar name to this reviewer. He died in 1992 but is significant in the genre as he had an important influence on the detective story in Japan.  He moved away from the more formulaic detective novels, adding aspects of human psychology and everyday life. Thus, in this short novel, it appears at first that Aseo is simply going to solve the puzzle but over the pages, we see how a man’s ordinary life, which is ordered and under control, begins to unravel bit by bit.  His social standing is of primary importance to him as is his position at work. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, Asai finds himself in circumstances completely alien to him. He begins to lose control of the situation which leads to an inevitable but tragic conclusion.

 

CriminalElement

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.

 

Complete Review

 A Quiet Place centers on dedicated government bureaucrat Tsuneo Asai, a section chief in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He is in his mid-forties, and has been successful in his career, knowing how to kowtow to the fast-track superiors that come and go in the department, and with decent prospects for advancement -- at least as far as his background will allow within the limitations of the still extremely rigid Japanese system of the early 1970s. He knows his place, and the importance of appearances -- and he craves stability. When his first wife passed away when he was thirty-four he was married again within a year, to Eiko. The novel begins, however, with Eiko's death -- a hard blow for Asai.
       Asai was away on a business trip when Eiko had a heart attack. She had had one previously, so it isn't a complete surprise, but she generally took care not to overly exert herself and Asai does have questions. It takes him a while to really look into the circumstances, but he does find it hard to explain to himself what she was doing walking on a rather steep road far from home.
       Asai was more or less satisfied with his marriage, convinced: "he and Eiko were perfectly in tune". Sure, they didn't have a very active sex life -- but Eiko didn't really seem to be into it, and given her health situation Asai was understanding, and sex wasn't such a big deal for Asai anyway ..... Looking back, however, it's pretty clear he didn't really know his wife very well. He had his role -- his job, above everything -- and she her supporting one (though disappointingly she didn't socialize as helpfully as his colleagues' wives knew to); beyond that, he left her to her own devices, and didn't ask much about what she did or how she spent her time.
       Eiko was active in a haiku-writing club -- and apparently very talented -- and Asai looks into this a bit as he can't quite let go of wondering about why his wife died the way she did. There are several secluded hotels up the street from where she died, and Asai can't help but wonder whether she was on her way to one of them, for an illicit rendezvous. Could she have been having an affair ?
       Asai can't keep himself from digging -- though for months he doesn't really get anywhere. But eventually the pieces fall into place, and Asai figures out exactly what happened. He enlists the services of a detective agency, and these provide some of the necessary background information, and suddenly it all makes sense.
       For quite a while A Quiet Place is a novel of a husband trying to make sense of his wife's death, making for a reasonably suspenseful how-did-it-happen story. But when he reconstructs events, and he has put together all the information, there's an abrupt change: what was essentially the story of a hunter -- Asai slowly gathering information and trying to make sense of it -- flips into one of Asai as the hunted.
       Asai's Achilles heel is his job and reputation, which he values above all else -- a vulnerability that leads to the threat of his complete downfall. Backing himself into a corner, Asai keeps taking actions that further complicate his situation -- right down to the irony of how the story is wrapped up.
       A Quiet Place is a bit unevenly paced, and selective about what details to focus on; among those that are essentially ignored: Asai's first wife died too -- what's that about ? Asai's increasingly desperate situation as the story winds down is quite well done, but Matsumoto could have easily reveled in it more: the use of the Japanese sense of obligation and propriety is clever, but Matsumoto could have made even more out of cornered Asai's final desperation.
       Clever in its outlines and twists, A Quiet Place somewhat awkwardly stumbles along, slogging through some details at great length while elsewhere advancing weeks or even months without much happening, even as there's much else Matsumoto could easily have filled in, making for a more substantial story. Still, it's a solid little thriller, and quite enjoyable read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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    Francois Von Hurter
  • A Quiet PlaceSeicho Matsumoto