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Sunday, May 18, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

'Out' of the ordinary


OUT, by Natsuo Kirino. Kodansha International, 2003, 359 pp., 2,500 yen (cloth).

Mystery novels and short stories, both original works and translated works, have a huge following in Japan. The flow of translations, however, is not entirely one way, but overwhelmingly favors English to Japanese. A scholar of the genre once even made the observation that if you were to take the sum total of all the Japanese-language mystery works that had been translated into English, you would come up with the rough equivalent of a "single month's" output by Japanese authors.

The number of Japanese novels available in English continues to increase by several a year, and titles now can be found by deceased masters of the genre such as Seicho Matsumoto, Akimitsu Takagi and Seishi Mizoguchi, as well as by active authors including Shizuko Natsuki and Jiro Akagawa. The translation bottleneck, however, remains a formidable barrier to their wider dissemination.

We should, therefore, be grateful for Kodansha International's decision to publish "Out." Winner of the 51st Grand Prix by the Japan Mystery Writers' Association, this book is not a classic puzzler, being somewhat closer to the macabre style of Shirley Jackson than to the English drawing-room formula of Agatha Christie. Central to the plot are Yayoi, Masako, Yoshie and Kuniko, four friends who work the graveyard shift on a dreary factory assembly line. They spend 5 1/2 hours each day inserting rice, slices of fried pork, pickles and so on into each "Champion's box lunch" to be sold at convenience stores the next morning. Physically drained, they then drag themselves home to their dreary rabbit hutches, where they are expected to tend to the needs of callously ungrateful family members. Why, it's almost enough to drive one to murder. Which is just what occurs.

At first glance, Yayoi Yamamoto, an attractive young mother with two young boys, would seem the least likely of the four to engage in homicidal behavior. But she discovers her "salaryman" husband Kenji is hooked on casino gambling and in debt to the tune of 5 million yen. In addition, he confesses he has the hots for a Shinjuku bar hostess. The financial losses, more than his infidelity, cause Yayoi to snap. Or maybe it was simply his sheer effrontery, after punching her in hard the stomach, to ask, "Can't you be nice once in a while?"

Upon this final provocation, she strangles him with her belt.

In the harrowing passage that follows, Yayoi enlists the help of Masako Katori, her work colleague, to help her dispose of the body. For reasons not easily understood, Masako -- the toughest, smartest and most rational of the four -- agrees to come to her friend's assistance. The women smuggle Kenji's body into Masako's house, at which point Kirino provides a clinically detailed description of it being disrobed, sliced open, disemboweled, dismembered, and transferred into rubbish bags. The ladies finally set off on their bicycles to distribute the bits and pieces of the man's mortal remains at trash collection points around the city.

Even if you're not the squeamish type, you do not want to be reading this chapter on a full stomach.

Naturally crime -- even the justifiable squashing of a despicable human cockroach -- does not pay. But as Kirino compounds each horror upon the next, the four find themselves in an even worse predicament than being apprehended by the police. After the murder is discovered (due to one woman's carelessness), a shrewd debt collector, who knew Masako through an earlier job relationship, puts two and two together and figures out she's behind it. Rather than blackmail her -- which would have been like trying to get blood from a turnip -- he makes an offer she can't refuse: He sets her up in the business of dismembering more corpses that happen to require discreet disposal. In exchange, he takes a commission from the results of her labors.

Meanwhile, Mitsuyoshi Satake, the yakuza to whom the dead Yamamoto owed gambling debts, has his own reasons for going after the women.

Once the weak link in the chain -- a self-centered young woman too wrapped up in her own urges to stand up for her friends -- cracks and spills the story, the remaining three are sucked into a malignant maelstrom of revenge.

"Out" is vaguely reminiscent of the Yasutaka Tsutsui short story "Perfectly Lovely Ladies," which appeared in "Japanese Golden Dozen: The Detective Story World in Japan," the Ellery Queen anthology published in 1978. That piece introduced eight housewives who, beset by inflation and high living costs, form a robbery gang that invades the homes of the rich, murders the inhabitants and plunders their valuables.

Tsutsui's story was more a study in black humor; Kirino's tale reads like a stranglehold that tightens as the narrative progresses. Translator Stephen Snyder is to be congratulated for his highly readable rendition of this novel, which is tense and harrowing from cover to cover.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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