In the few days before I sat down in earnest to read it, Mariko Koike’s The Cat in the Coffin sat cheek-by-jowl in my reading pile with Georges Simenon’s The Widow. A fitting pair-up. Simenon’s lean and surgically precise psychological thrillers are enjoying some well-deserved attention back in the public eye thanks to the New York Review of Books, and while Koike’s Coffin doesn’t quite have the same lancet-like directness — Simenon can make one word do the work of twenty — it has more than a little of his eye for how evil breeds in apparently ordinary places.
Coffin’s breeding ground of evil is a locale that hasn’t been tapped often for works in translation from Japan: a point in the post-WWII landscape of that country where the American occupation’s presence rubbed off on the more well-to-do local population. In this case, it’s the household of one Goro Kawakubo, a freewheeling art professor with broadly Western tastes. He’s infatuated with everything from American jazz to French cars, much to the bedazzlement of the naïve young Masayo, the barely-twenty-year-old art student Goro hires in as household help and a governess of sorts for his eight-year-old daughter.
Momoko, the daughter, comes off as a possible model for Emily the Strange. Moody, disconnected from most everyone else in the adult world, she needs someone to help her out of the cocoon which has wrapped around her since her mother’s death. Momoko’s only connection to the outside world is through her cat, Lala, who serves as companion, plaything and radar detector. It’s not clear if Lala is the one picking up cues from Momoko about who’s good or bad, or if it’s the other way around. Koike sows deliberate confusion about that issue if only because she also exploits it quite vigorously later on in the book.
At first we think we have a good idea where things are headed. Momoko and Masayo slowly draw closer to each other, and the deck seems to be stacked in favor of the older woman discovering some terrible secret on Momoko’s behalf. Then in sweeps Goro’s new girlfriend of the week, Chinatsu. She’s everything Masayo isn’t: accultured, elegant, unsinkable even in the face of total rejection on Momoko’s part. The little girl hates Chinatsu’s guts at first sight, and goes right on hating her on general principles. Momoko can smell a fake a mile off, and everything about Chinatsu’s smiles and faux-sweetness reeks of fakery. It isn’t long before Masayo feels her own sympathies divided in three (and possibly) four different directions.
Then we realize the deck has been stacked an entirely different way, and this is also the part where I need to stop revealing anything for fear of ruining the book’s fistful of well-earned surprises. Much of the suspense in a psychological thriller like this — whether in the social-realist Simenon mold, or the psychological-spellbinding Daphne du Maurier variety (as Coffin is, the more I think about it) — revolves around trying to anticipate where the real evil is, where the true moral culpability lies. Coffin lets you see evil everywhere and nowhere, but there is no cop-out ending where everyone is equally guilty and therefore no one should be blamed. It’s more sinister — or, to use the word that comes most readily to mind, dastardly.
Back in 1946 — not all that long before the events in Coffin take place, come to think of it — George Orwell took a few pages to lament the Decline of the English Murder. With tongue at least partly in cheek (with someone as dryly British as Orwell, you could scarcely tell at times), he noted how the public’s fascination for crime after WWII had turned away from the clever and the ingenious. “Perfect crimes” and untraceable poisonings for inheritances were out; messy, curiously passionless spur-of-the-moment killings were in. He longed instead for a crime with “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.” That sounds like a close match for the Mexican standoff of the heart at the center of Coffin.