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. Read more
Kikutani does not look forward to leaving prison. For sixteen years he has been half-asleep in the womb of the state, grateful for his lack of freedom, since it means that many less decisions he has to make. He is obliged to apply for parole even if he doesn’t want it. The prospect of rejoining the outside world, even just provisionally, fills him with terror. It is not because of what the world might do to him, but what he fears he might do all over again when confronted with the world in all of its capriciousness and turmoil.
A decade and a half ago, Kikutani found his wife cheating on him with a friend. His response was to stab her to death and leave the other man permanently injured — and in the years since, he has not so much dealt with the emotional reasons for the crime as he has simply buried them. If everyone else around him is willing to believe the past is a dead place, then he might as well act like it. Uneasy, fearful of what he might find, and surprised at both how much and how little has changed, he leave prison and joins the population of a halfway house. At every step he is certain he is doomed, certain that the past will erupt once again in some form, whether inside him or outside of him. Read more
Well, that was short-lived. Such was my reaction at reading the second, and apparently final, volume of Batten. There’s little more depressing than reading something you have a furtive sidelong liking for despite all its flaws, and then seeing it get sliced off at the knees before it ever has a chance to come into full flower. Maybe it was inevitable: for all its quirks, the series never really seemed to achieve liftoff.
It wasn’t just that there was no lift. It was that there was also plenty of drag. By the middle of the second volume, we see a pattern — but it’s not a starting point from which bigger things grow. It’s closed-ended. Problem manifests, hero — Seijurō — comes in and straightens everything out, everyone goes back home to regroup. The only time Seijurō remotely approaches putting his own neck in danger is at the end of this book — fitting place for it, right when things have to be sewn up anyway — and all it really costs him is a couple of cuts on either side of his mouth. There’s never a sense of anything at risk on his part.Read more