Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Book review: The Last Train, Michael Pronko (2017)

This engrossing procedural works well for most of its length but falls down at the end as the author tries to maintain a heightened sense of suspense beyond the limits that can be sustained by the reader’s credulity.

In its early stages there is plenty of believable drama as Hiroshi Shimizu and his police colleagues try to find the identity of the person who killed a foreigner (foreigners are known in Japan as “gaijin”, or “outsiders”) by throwing him in front of an express train at one of Tokyo’s many stations.

Shimizu is offered up as a sympathetic if unglamorous cop whose wife, an American, has just left the country, and him, to return to her home. The man, named Takamatsu, who ropes Shimizu into the case of the death of Steve Deveraux, who had worked for a property company, is also a bit odd and he brings on a number of other police to work on the case. There is an ex-sumo wrestler named Sakaguchi who lends some muscle to the force when it’s needed. There’s also a female cop named Akiko who likes coffee and who stays in the office doing research.

The case centres on property transactions in Tokyo and it involves the yakuza, who had abducted Deveraux’s killer, Michiko Suzuki, when she was younger and sexually exploited her for the purpose of making degrading pornography. Michiko’s father had run a small metalworking factory in Kawasaki in the post-war years but the business had gone bad. Michiko had taken to working as an escort and had used information garnered from her line of work to get involved in property speculation. The reason the mob took and interest in her was due to one of her schemes. Michiko had also trained in aikido and had given money to close family members to help them get established in the community.

The book therefore in its sweep takes in a number of themes that are familiar to anyone who knows Japan even partially. The switch from manufacturing to service industries, the gentrification of downmarket areas of the city to house office workers, the various speculative trends that have characterised business in recent decades, the perennial second-class status of women, the ambivalence that Japanese have about foreigners: all of it serves to provide Pronko, who says on his author page that he has lived in Japan for 20 years, with material for this tale of redemption and transformation. In what follows there are spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in the story stop reading here.

When Takamatsu is injured in the course of performing his duties, the stakes for Hiroshi are raised but his will is undaunted. He visits Michiko’s accountant and also a photographer she had used in one of her ongoing schemes involving blackmail. She and the photographer would target businessmen and demand money from them to prevent them from sending photographs of their romantic trysts to their wives. All sorts of shadowy enterprise were used by Michiko in order to enable her to amass wealth, which she was in the process of transferring to a Swiss bank account preparatory to her leaving to go and live in Europe.

The penny drops well before the end of the book and it might have been possible to tighten the noose around Michiko without her unfortunate death in the final pages, but Pronko decided to have Sakaguchi and Hiroshi go running around Tokyo in pursuit of their quarry instead of getting the police to stake out the airport. The cops knew well in advance of the final chase scene when Michiko was due to board the aircraft that was to take her to Paris, and I cannot account for the author’s inability to stick to a script with some basis in sensible reality, instead of having Michiko assault Hiroshi on a station platform on the Yamanote Line, and then run into Meiji Jingu, the Shinto shrine in the centre of the city near Harajuku.

This might have been a very good novel but in the end it was just a better-than-average thriller. It would have been a much better book if there had been one less body to count. In any case, after all is said and done the characterisation of Michiko is really very good, although the parts of the book that are focalised through her do not reveal many of her thoughts. The parts of the book that are focalised through Hiroshi are full of stray thoughts and random impressions, so the way that the two main characters are handled is strikingly different. I hesitate to say that this is a shortcoming of the book, but it was certainly something that impressed itself on me. By making Hiroshi more complete as a character, the author establishes a hierarchy that the reader is forced to follow: this character is more important than that one.

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