NO REASON FOR MURDER, by Ayako Sono. ICG Muse Inc, 2003, 422 pp., 3,000 yen (cloth).

Reading crime stories can be a claustrophobic experience. Entering the criminal mind is not unlike squeezing into the airless tunnels of a rodent.

The Miura Peninsula, the setting for much of Ayako Sono’s darkly grained novel, “No Reason for Murder” — a place of black, sandy beaches and impenetrable woods, a shabby mix of old farms, small factories and residential plots of the kind found all over Japan — is, in the main character’s words, “no longer as harmonious as it once was.” Dissonance of place becomes a correlative objective for the abnormal social environment that produces crime. As the setting for an unlikely series of murders, the peninsula is transformed into a landscape as narrow and confining as a morgue. In many ways, this is a book about confinements: the parameters of home, family and work; the lanes and tracks of the peninsula that lead to dead ends; desultory housing estates; the barrier of the sea.

Sono is a Catholic, one of that small band of Japanese who, living in a nominally Buddhist country with a strong though often subliminally applied Confucianism, must moderate native values with those of the Vatican. As a novelist, Sono stands in a line of literary descent from Graham Green to the Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. The characters of Sono’s novel inhabit the zone that Endo called “mudswamp Japan,” a term that describes the inner world of the Japanese as he saw it, a place of moral indifference and insensitivity to sin.

Fujio Uno, Sono’s serial killer character, is not so much a monster as a character so weakly grounded to any personal moral code that he becomes capable of monstrous acts. His crimes are unspeakable, his personality without any redeeming qualities of note, and his intellect it would be generous to call average. This is a bold development by Sono as there are only two main characters in this story. Also, the mystery is obligingly solved by the author before the novel even gets into its narrative stride. Sono’s gamble is that the reader will find sufficient interest in the finely balanced opposition of her two main protagonists.

The compassion, or naivete, of Sono’s lead character, the Catholic Yukiko Hata, a comely spinster who makes a living as a self-employed seamstress, is contrasted with the perceived shortcomings of the women Uno picks up to later murder or abandon. Each of the victim’s flaws diminishes somewhat our full sympathy for their fate. Uno’s first victim is a high school student, for example, who undergoes a rapid transition from gangling adolescent to extortionist; another is a young housewife, consumed by vanity, who passes herself off as single.

There are gruesome descriptions of their unnatural ends, corroborated by forensic evidence of the kind usually only privy to pathologists. Sono’s killer experiences a vague unease about these acts, but a remarkable facility to reconcile himself to the murders once successfully, though clumsily, accomplished. He has no notion of sin, original or postmodern.

If the social novel of the 19th century chronicled the damage that society could inflict on individuals like Thomas Hardy’s Jude, the new social novel in Japan, represented by the works of such writers as Ayako Sono and the recently translated Natsuo Kirino, measure the destruction that the disengaged and adrift are capable of wrecking on society.

It may be an unrepentant Fujio Uno who mounts the gallows at the end of Sono’s novel, but it is society, she seems to imply, that is the real culprit in the crime.

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