PROJECT KAISEI, by Michiro Naito. Indiana: 1stBooks Library, 2003, 321 pp., $19.95 (paper).
THE INUGAMI CLAN, by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Yumiko Yamazaki. Tuttle Shokai Inc., 2003, 300 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Unless the dire warnings of electric power shortages that were raised earlier this summer suddenly prove true, let’s assume you are reading this review by incandescent light.

Nevertheless, that Tokyo’s power utility was able to cover up its nuclear generator cracks — leading to their prolonged shutdown while they undergo safety checks — easily begs the question as to how hard would it be for Japan to conceal development of nuclear weapons.

Of course, secrecy might no longer be warranted. The imminent prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea has once again led politicians here to raise the issue of Japan’s developing nuclear weapons, its peace constitution and so-called “nuclear allergy” notwithstanding.

This issue is by no means hypothetical; during the Tokyo Summit in 1993, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went on record as opposing Japan’s “indefinite extension” of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

What makes “Project Kaisei” of particular interest is that, first, the author Michiro Naito is Japanese; second, he holds a degree in nuclear physics; and third, he wrote the novel in English. As proclaimed in the introduction on the book’s back cover, “readers will be treated to an accurate description of Japan and its people, rarely seen in novels written by Western writers. The story contains no mighty super-hero or wisecracking antihero, just a lone private investigator trying to unearth the grand secret of Japan’s nuclear-weapon development project.”

The narrative begins with private investigator Kenji Koga being hired by a wealthy Texan to travel to Japan to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding his son’s “suicide.”

Once in Tokyo, Koga’s attempts to trace Peter Cromwell’s movements prior to his death get off to a slow start. In fact, I don’t recall ever having read a mystery in which the detective put in so much legwork and encountered so many dead ends. (Unlike the fictional variety, who invariably encounter villains by the second or third chapter, real detectives can no doubt attest to the amount of effort they expend on a difficult case.)

Koga must begin by piecing together why Cromwell went to Japan in the first place; how, with no means of support, he could afford to live in an ritzy Azabu condo; what he was doing that led to his death; and why a sophisticated camera and laptop computer are both missing from his personal effects.

In between the detective’s obligatory encounters with good girls (he manages to fit in a torrid romp between the sheets with a gaijin Roppongi nightclub hostess), and with bad guys. Naito presents some intelligent insights into how Japan is being tugged in opposite directions regarding future rearmament. He is not optimistic. “I think it’s too late now,” remarks Tatsuro Kambe, a professor whose leftist views led to his dismissal from a national university, “We have opened Pandora’s box, and the only thing we can do now is to pray that it won’t lead to Armageddon.”

Naito, a naturalized U.S. citizen — who, like his character, resides in Texas — has harnessed the mystery genre to produce an original work that also stands out as a timely and thought-provoking perspective on current events. Eccentric genius

A prolific writer of Gothic tales set in exotic locations, the late Seishi Yokomizo (1902-1981) is best remembered as creator of the unlikely detective hero Kosuke Kindaichi, an eccentric young drifter who, when agitated, sputters, stutters and scratches his unkempt hair, discharging flakes of dandruff — a sort of Japanese Lieutenant Colombo.

Like Colombo, Kindaichi’s eccentric style is offset by an astute mind, establishing him as one of Japan’s most popular fictional sleuths.

Yokomizo is famed for such popular works as “Gokumon-to” (Guillotine Island, 1949) — regarded by many as the greatest Japanese mystery novel ever written — and “Yatsu-haka Mura” (Village of the Eight Graves, 1951). He is said to have drawn much of his inspiration from the baffling “locked-room” murder mysteries of American novelist John Dickson Carr (1905-1977). In this 1972 novel, the first of Yokomizo’s works to be translated into English, he shows he is capable of some pretty good sleights of hand himself.

The story begins shortly after the end of the Pacific War, when members of the wealthy Inugami clan gather at the family’s lakeside estate in Nasu to hear the reading of a will whose provisions are so bizarre, it almost begs them to kill one another off.

Kindaichi actually arrives on the scene before the first murder takes place, having been summoned by a young lawyer who saw the will and realized trouble was bound to occur. Victims then promptly begin dying mysteriously, beginning with the lawyer himself. The corpses are cleverly arranged to allude to the three Inugami family heirlooms — the ax, the zither and the chrysanthemum — which, when pronounced together, form the phrase “yokikotokiku” (to hear good tidings).

As the wealthy family’s pretentious self-image is gradually chipped away, the numerous dark secrets of patriarch Sahei Inugami are revealed. The will arranged to leave all his money to only one of three grandsons born to three different mistresses, contingent upon which one marries the granddaughter of a Shinto priest who had helped Inugami when he was destitute. The identity of one grandson cannot be confirmed as his face was horribly mutilated in the war, obliging him — shades of Alexandre Dumas — to wear a mask.

While Kindaichi fails to prevent the murders, he remains two steps ahead of the police in identifying the killer. Yumiko Yamazaki’s lively translation is wonderfully readable and, indeed, with more carefully selected works and translations of this quality, Japanese mystery fiction is certain to find a wider audience abroad.

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