Book Review - 'The Silent Dead' by Tetsuya Honda (translated by Giles Murray)

Back after my little break. Enjoyed a mini-heatwave and a thunderstorm; now we’re back to the usual fare of April showers.

Finished another book from my reading challenge list, My first experience reading a novel by a Japanese author that’s been translated. There’s a minor SPOILER near the end of the post.

'The Silent Dead' by Tetsuya Honda

When a mutilated body wrapped in a blue tarpaulin is found in a quiet neighbourhood, Lieutenant Reiko Himekawa and her squad are assigned the case. As the youngest female detective in the Homicide Division, Reiko has a lot to prove, but she has an undeniable ability to solve crimes. When she uncovers more murders with the same signature, she knows there is a serial killer at work.
What is Strawberry Night, the dark web group that links all the victims? And how long will Reiko survive, now the killer knows her name?

The plot caught my attention and drew me in; personally, I found it original, very much in keeping with the digital age. I wanted to know how the crimes were going to be solved. I wanted to know how Japanese police procedure worked.

The book starts in first person. The anonymous character speaks of the awfulness of their life and the chapter culminates in a crime being committed. This same character pops up a few times and we see events from their point of view. But I found it jarring, mainly because the ‘present tense’ of first person is telling of things that, for us, have already happened. Also, the rest of the book is in third person.

In the next chapter, we’re introduced to Reiko Himekawa and, soon after that, to the discovery of the body. She’s one of the first detectives on the scene. The body has been carefully wrapped in blue tarpaulin with the throat cut and another cut on the stomach; further investigation reveals that the cut on the stomach was made post-mortem. Given the meticulous manner in which the body had been wrapped, the detectives are mystified as to why it had been dumped in plain sight.

Reiko’s ‘undeniable ability’ to solve crimes is an almost sixth-sense ability to ‘see’ things and make connections which others don’t – almost like she’s thinking outside the box though there are times it comes across as almost psychic. Her colleagues tend to view her insights as little more than fantastical notions.

In time, the investigation, following Reiko’s lead, uncovers another body. But there’s nothing connecting the victims other than the way they worked – both were good workers, went through a phase of being jaded with life before embracing, mainly, their work life with a renewed enhanced enthusiasm. Interestingly, both victims were known to frequent an “unknown destination on the evening of the second Sunday of the month”. Except that no one in their private or work lives knows the location or the purpose of the visit. Eventually, the police start to piece the puzzle together and realise they’re dealing with a serial killer.

One of the things I liked was the emphasis placed on the psychological side of the crimes; the way seemingly ‘normal’ people can find themselves drawn to murder. The perpetrator was an interesting choice, and I worked out who it was about halfway through the book. Not that I’m a genius – I rarely get it right – but, to me, the whole set up around that character was presented too obviously.

And with that, I shall now switch to my disappointment with this novel. I really, really wanted to like it, but it was not to be.

For starters, too much attention is paid to Reiko’s private life. I get that, at almost 30, her parents are worried she’s never going to settle down. So, her mother tries to play matchmaker, which, understandably, leaves Reiko annoyed. I lost count of the number of times Reiko consciously refuses to answer her phone, keeping it on silent then forgetting about it.

On page 27, we learn that she hates the summer:
Smothering heat enveloped her the instant she got off the bus and momentarily stopped her in her tracks. Something cold and nauseous welled up inside her. She hated summer. It brought back memories of that awful night. That summer when she was seventeen.

Hints about ‘that awful night’ are peppered through the narrative until the big reveal about halfway through the book. I was fervently hoping it wouldn’t be the obvious…

Despite the fact that she’s a capable detective, she spends a lot of time having to prove herself to her colleagues. Although her immediate team treat her with respect, her other male peers come across as misogynistic bullies, who take great delight in humiliating her.

I, personally, didn’t find Reiko a likeable protagonist. She comes across as self-centred and seems to have a massive chip on her shoulder. Although that’s understandable, given what she has to put up with, there’s a sense that Reiko herself has a touch of prejudice against most women. I didn’t particularly enjoy her interactions with other women, like this scene with a potential witness:
The woman’s tone made it clear that the last thing she wanted to do was to go through the whole thing for a second time. Reiko detected a note of powerful personal dislike in Mrs. Hirata’s eyes. She seemed to be sizing up Reiko and thinking, “You’re young, stuck-up, tall – and a woman!
… Reiko scribbled the phone number of the Kameari police station onto the back of her business card before she handed it over. Mrs. Hirata took the card with both hands in the formal manner, scrutinized it, then looked up, as if to compare the card with its owner.

What is it now? You’re thinking, “So that’s a lieutenant, is it?”
The real question was whether Mrs. Hirata even understood what lieutenant actually meant…
Or are you insinuating that I don’t look like a lieutenant should?
As these thoughts were running through Reiko’s mind, she noticed for the first time how neatly made up Mrs. Hirata was. She was startled…
Damn! Maybe I’m the one who looks like shit!
Reiko began to worry that she was the one with makeup problems.

As a whole, the police didn’t seem professional. One, in particular, another lieutenant, Katsumata, is the same rank as Reiko but older. He’s not only offensive when dealing with her; he calls people ‘moron’, thinks women are ‘sluts’, imagines bedding witnesses… I’ve read thrillers with obviously misogynistic men, but here it was so overdone as to be absurdly comic.

None of the detectives seems to think that solving the crime is of paramount importance; its every detective for him/herself as they all seem to prefer going solo. They flout procedure by stealing witnesses and, most annoyingly, not sharing crucial information.

That few of them carry guns wasn’t a big deal for me as the police in the UK aren’t armed. But, given the number of times the detectives sit down at proper restaurants for long lunches, they seem to have a lot of time on their hands. What I did find strange was the lack of police cars – all the travelling was done by train and taxi.

The sexual harassment was unbelievable. Even as a detective, Reiko wasn’t spared. Blatant, in-your-face harassment even at her place of work, both physical and verbal.

There’s some sexual violence; to be honest, I struggled with how graphic it was. That’s one of the reasons I don’t watch many crime dramas/police procedurals these days – it seems as if rape is too often used simply as a device to move a story forward, and then it has to be as sexually violent/depraved as possible.

There are too many instances of info-dumping – having just been introduced to Reiko, we’re subjected to almost two pages of how frustrating her life is as a young woman lieutenant. We get the same thing again, over halfway through the book, another two pages of backstory for a detective who’s hardly had any ‘screen’ time.

I don’t know how much has been lost in translation, but the translated version reminded me of over-the-top comic fiction. Which made reading hard work; I had to keep reminding myself I was reading a serious crime story. A few examples…

When their taxi pulled up at the Kameari police station, Reiko and Ioka piled out and dashed up the front stairs… They charged down the corridor, shouldered open the door, and barged straight into the evening meeting.

Rubberneckers were a royal pain in the ass.” That’s not dialogue, by the way.

I found the choice of words, especially in dialogue, jarring; they didn’t suit the genre at all. Like a foul-mouthed detective telling his partner, “it’s time for us to skedaddle.” Seriously? A grown man who openly swears would use the word ‘skedaddle’?

Then there are the unnecessary thought processes. In this scene, Reiko returns a call from one of her colleagues who has unearthed potentially pertinent information:
“Hey, Lieutenant, thanks for getting in touch. You’re not busy?”
“No, I’m fine. What’s up?”
“There’s something I want to show you. Can we meet?”
“Sure. Ikebukuro in, say, an hour and a half?”
“Okay. You’ve been to the Countess Café, haven’t you? Let’s meet there.”
“Okay. See you at 4:30.”

Something he wants to show me? What?’

And in this scene where Otsuka, one of Reiko’s detectives, is explaining to the department what he’s managed to find; Hashizume, the director of the homicide division is less than impressed:
Hashizume… turned back to Otsuka. “What you’ve got here is way too much hearsay for me. Most of your report isn’t even secondhand – it’s thirdhand or worse. Apparently this and what if that. What are you going to come up with next, man – the hound of the bloody Baskervilles? The whole thing looks like an urban myth to me.”
That’s pretty much the reaction I expected from you, Director.
Reiko got to her feet. It was time for her to strut her stuff.

Having those extra sentences was, for me, needless filler.

Maybe the suspense comes across better in the original Japanese? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t ‘feel’ any tension when reading Reiko's reaction to being kicked in the stomach:
Her gorge rose. Her face flushed hot and cold. Her throat seemed to be clogged with stones. Her breathing…

The sentence stops there.

This is the first in a series featuring Reiko Himekawa so I’m sure a lot of the seemingly pointless plot threads will be answered. Although this book has garnered a lot of good reviews, this disappointed reader can only manage 2.5* and will not be continuing with this series.