When I went to university I was, to all intents and purposes, a country bumpkin. I’d spent more or less all my time in a small village on the North-East coast of England. So suddenly coming into a major city with one of the top universities just as the counter-cultural revolution was getting into its stride in the 1960s (later epitomised as the time of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” by Ian Dury) ripped off my rose-tinted spectacles and invited me to make decisions about a whole range of issues I’d never thought about. Coming forward to the modern young adult leaving the nest to study, the difference could not be more pronounced. Whereas I was completely naive, today’s young have been exposed to the internet from their earliest years and are aware of most aspects of human behaviour long before they crack the teen barrier. To that extent, prejudices have been formed earlier and so can be more difficult to dislodge when later confronting the reality.
My reason for starting in this way is the theme of Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2014). Today, it’s almost impossible to avoid knowing something about the range of behavior which exists on the curve from the fetishistic use of individual items of clothing, through transvestism, to transsexualism which may involve the use of hormones and/or surgery to make adjustments to external appearance. This book begins with the murder of a cross-dressing male who’s about to begin the process of gender reassignment. Just before he dies, he goes into St. Margaret Mary’s for confession. Unfortunately, instead of offering a helpful and supportive ear, Father O’Reilly’s hostile indifference drives the man away. Feeling guilty, the priest follows only to find the man killed just a few yards from the church.
The technical problem for the author to solve is one of authorial attitude. It would be possible to construct a judgmental plot in which many readers’ prejudices might be confirmed about what can be characterised as perverse sexual behaviour. Yet as the current cultural climate has shifted in favour of same-sex marriage and against stereotypical homophobic and other gender-based attitudes, the author should really be aiming for at least a neutral point of view. In a case involving transvestism, it would not be unusual for the partner to completely accept the decision of the other to dress in clothing considered appropriate to the other gender. If there are children from such a relationship, they are often even more supportive, accepting the decision of their father or mother as being true to his or her essential nature. The reaction can be different in cases of transsexualism where feelings of abandonment and rejection can be more prominent.
Since this is another book in which we see inside the police station run by Captain Josie Corsino, this problem is magnified because, as a woman in a role more often than not seen as “rightfully” belonging to a man, she has to protect herself, navigate the difficult sexual politics in the ranks of the officers serving in her station, and enforce a general sense of respect for the victim(s), no matter what the officers’ private opinions. Thematically, therefore, we’re confronted by a number of different situations in which gender politics are relevant. Women in the Hollywood Community Police Station have to confront prejudice just as some of those who cross-dress and appear in public can also find themselves in emotional and/or physical danger. In both cases, individuals are deliberately stepping outside the roles attributed to them by conservative culture. That they choose to confront conventional beliefs and expectations shows considerable bravery.
From a purely technical point of view, the author makes no clear distinction between the male transvestite who’s entirely happy to retain male status and often has entirely successful relationships whether comprising the same or different biological sexes, and the individual who seeks a surgical intervention to reassign gender identity. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all cross-dressers are unhappy with their biological sex. No-one with experience in psychosexual cases would agree with this proposition.
This lack of clarity and a failure to avoid a number of clichés in the relationships of those around Corsino herself, leave the book feeling emotionally superficial and unsatisfactory. This is rather a shame. Just as there have now been a number of books which deal with the situation of an African American who can pass as a Caucasian, there’s a real need for a book to constructively engage either with the individuals who can pass as a member of the opposite sex or who elect to dress in nonconforming clothing without any wish to be taken as a member of that sex. Sadly, this is not one of them. As to the mystery element, it’s somewhat mechanical and depends on some slightly unlikely events for the “right” outcomes to be achieved. The general sense of life in the Hollywood Community Police Station, however, retains the authentic feel of the first novel I read from this author. So Unnatural Murder is socially interesting in the authorial attitudes revealed. It starts with the title and goes downhill from there. All murders should be considered unnatural, but I suspect this author intends readers to infer this is the murder of a man with unnatural tendencies. Worse, I can’t particularly recommend it as a murder mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
As we grow, we learn about the world that surrounds us. The first independent exploration across the floor brings us a sense of the space around us, but strange phenomena like steps are beyond us. Then as our eyesight and cognitive functions improve, we appreciate vision in three dimensions. We grasp the idea of depth and “see” a context for the faces of mommy and daddy that have loomed above us in the cot. Our natural curiosity propels us to explore strange new worlds, seeking out new lives for ourselves, and boldly going where no baby has gone before.
This may seem a perverse way in which to begin the review of Small Town Heroes by Marion G Harmon, the fifth in the series, Wearing the Cape, featuring Astra and the junior team of Sentinels, but it nicely captures the spirit of the problem confronting all those who write a serial. When the first episode sees the light of day, the author waits with trepidation to see whether he or she’s managed to find the magic formula that will pay the bills while the next in the serial is written. In fact, this author has the talent to produce new books at a steady rate. He’s now a professional writer with a loyal following, keeping everyone happy. Well, keeping most people happy.
The problem may be put simply. The world of the superhero can be very two-dimensional. Each character comes with inbuilt strengths and weaknesses. In the right circumstances, any given character will prevail by using the strengths and shielding the weaknesses from attack. The plot in each book is therefore like a structured game or dance as opponents manoeuvre against each other to face combat in circumstances which favour one side. If the plot comes out right, the good guys have the edge over the bad guys, and we can pass on to the next thrilling instalment. Except, after a while this can grow a little repetitive. There are only a limited set of conditions in which each class of superhero can win or lose. After a few fights, we’ve seen most of these situations played out. So if the series is to develop, it must gain depth and context, i.e. the characterisation must show real growth, and there must be world-building so we understand how and why these particular superheroes and their antagonists came into being, and what motivates them to fight.
This book makes a more serious attempt not only to give some of the history explaining how this particular version of reality came into being, it also introduces a wider political context for the action, some of which takes place in Cuba. So, for the first time, we can begin to locate the American experience of superheroes in an international context. More interestingly, there’s also a discussion of the different types of political system that might emerge if some of the local citizenry develop superpowers. It’s all very well to assume some people would side with the forces of law and order, offering help to subdue superpowered villains as they break the law. But this ignores the need for a legal structure in which the powerful may be protected from civil liability. Imagine the problem if a gang of supervillains breaks into a bank. Superheroes surround the area and a fight ensues. Not surprisingly, a significant amount of damage is caused to buildings, the street furniture, and any vehicles in the area. And that’s before you get to any ordinary humans who get caught in the crossfire. So who pays to repair all the damage, replace broken fixtures and fittings, and cover the medical expenses of the humans injured? There must be careful liaison between conventional police officers and the superpowered helpers. Rules of engagement must be agreed. There must be penalties if the superpowered exceed their defined roles. There must also be investment in new forms of jail to hold those villains with different powers, and in the development of new weapons that can defeat the supervillains when none of the superheroes are around, or, perish the thought, if one of the superheroes goes rogue.
So one of the joys of reading books like this is to see an author making a real effort to develop the basic scenario. The opening books were auspicious because there’s real ingenuity in the way they exploit the information made available through time travel. However, as the series has progressed, the changes made using this information have produced an increasingly divergent reality which no longer matches the future from which the information was gleaned. So now the heroes are flying more by the seat of their pants, hoping their best decisions are good enough to keep their world on a safe track. Our primary hero, Astra, is also growing up. She’s still making mistakes as you would expect of someone of her age, but there are signs of maturity creeping in. Some time soon, she’s going to become a fine superhero leader. While she waits for more responsibility and some national recognition, the rest of her team rally round for the big set-piece fight at the end with others making guest appearances from earlier books. It’s pleasing to see how everyone gets their place in the action as a new set of supervillains poses different challenges to overcome. So having wobbled very slightly in the last book, Harmon is very much back on track with Small Town Heroes, leaving a mess of troubles for Astra to deal with when she gets back home in the next book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The fifth and sixth episodes see an escalation of the series from a classic police procedural model to both an “espionage” or thriller type of show and a more general drama. Taking the espionage element first, we now have confirmation that a CIA/FBI unit is operating out of the US Embassy in Tokyo. It’s been responsible for all these unauthorised transmissions that have been detected by Koshiro Inukai (Yasuhi Nakamura), a low-ranking officer in the local police force. He passes this information on, but when Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) tries to trigger a formal investigation, he’s told to shut it down. The Japanese government depends on this unit for support in dealing with terrorist threats both international and domestic. Nothing is to disturb this relationship. However, Koshiro Inukai is dogged and will not accept this special status. He embarks on a spying campaign of his own. Unfortunately, the Americans are not exactly slow to notice him snooping and they retaliate in a rather obvious way. However, it also appears the minders responsible for Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) may be in trouble. Not only have they “lost” him — not necessarily in a physical way because they could snatch him whenever they wanted, but he’s now beginning to assert some degree of independence. It seems the Americans have been experimenting with savants to see whether their unique talents can be used for investigative purposes. Word from Washington now suggests this program may be discontinued. This is putting more pressure on the Americans to decide what to do. As it is, they have been monitoring the cases Ataru has solved and are hoping this will provide evidence of his continuing utility.
Sho Ebina (Yuta_Tamamori) is also coming more into play. The fifth episode is set on the university medical school campus where he’s studying to become a doctor. He and one researcher witness a professor’s fall down a long flight of open steps. Sho sees someone briefly but cannot say whether this was a man or woman. The researcher claims not to have seen anyone. This disagreement becomes sharper when the researcher passes a polygraph test. He honestly does not believe he saw anyone and, even though he might have a motive to cover up the involvement of one or two other members of the research or teaching staff, there’s no evidence that he’s lying. Frankly, the answer is not all that interesting but the episode does give itself the chance to explore precisely which the researcher might not have seen the murderer. In other words, the central character as a disabled man identifies another form of disability and, through the agency of Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Shunichi Sawa, we get a resolution which, while fairly sentimental, may not be unreasonable in the circumstances.
The sixth episode sees the continuation of this theme. This time, the person with the disability has an extreme form of perfect pitch. If she’s exposed to any sound which is even slightly off-key, she feels ill and uses a form of white noise generator to keep herself functioning. It happens that she lives in an apartment block where, two doors down from her, a man has apparently committed suicide. Ataru is quickly into her groove and spends most of the episode walking round giving not only the precise key but also the frequency of the note. This leads to the identification of a possible motive for our disabled woman to have killed the “suicide”. The rest of the episode is then spent in deciding precisely when the death occurred and who might have had the motive and opportunity to do it. Needless to say, regardless whether our woman is guilty, Sho Ebina is quickly on the case in trying to establish a basis on which she might become more tolerant of less than perfect pitch noises. The other feature of this episode is the increasingly precise way in which Shunichi Sawa is cataloguing Ataru’s behaviour patterns. Because he agrees to become his legal guardian to keep him out of hospital for now, he’s seeing him at night. Ataru’s sleep patterns have been changing and he’s now shedding tears when he solves cases. His obsession with the synchronised swimming detective continues, and his behaviour may sometimes be reprogrammed for short periods of time if you repeat a command three times.
Episodes seven and eight also see the CIA/FBI story developing. Maiko Ebina is invited to come to the US Embassy where she gets a briefing on the project from Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami). In effect, she’s invited to join the team to manage Ataru as a resource. To show good faith, Larry gives her Ataru’s passport. Since she and Shunichi Sawa are guardians, this will be the first step in regularising Ataru’s status. Koshiro Inukai also reappears and has obviously been brainwashed into forgetting everything there was to know about the broadcast signals he’s been monitoring. This seriously upsets Shunichi Sawa who goes to the Embassy to demand a meeting. Needless to say, Larry makes no admissions and the meeting ends inconclusively. We then get one of these faintly incomprehensible internal police mysteries. There’s what could be a murder or a suicide in a local police station. The senior police want to shut down the investigation fast as a suicide but Ataru raises problems. Although I understood the immediate sequence leading to the man’s death and the appearance of suicide, the whole backstory left me confused. I have no idea why Shunichi Sawa’s boss suddenly disappeared five years ago nor why the police officer who died was subjected to continuing harassment. Perhaps it will become clearer in later episodes.
Episode 8 has another person with a disability at the heart of the mystery except this man is like one of these next generation mutants who can disrupt electrical power. Particularly when he gets upset, he can blow up appliances and strike sparks. Since the “crime” our team is investigating is the death of a man in a fire, it’s fairly logical to believe this X-man wannabe stood outside the apartment and caused the ignition of the accelerant by causing the overhead light fitting to explode. Although this element of the plot is rather silly, the overall solution to the mystery is rather more routine with Ataru pointing out the temperature inside the apartment and the presence of the wrong type of mould in the bathroom — yes, it does make sense when you see it all play out.
Episode 9 sees us finally meeting with Ataru’s parents and getting a fairly full backstory of how they came to hand him over to Larry. In one sense, this is a strong indictment of the failure of Japanese culture to be tolerant of difference. Although the straw that broke the camel’s back might have been a loss of face to the couple involved, they and the rest of the neighbourhood should have understood the nature of the problem and rallied round the parents. As it was, the family were effectively ostracised. The moment when we come to the significance of the flowers is affecting. That this is followed by some level of reconciliation between Ataru and his mother is fitting. Returning for a moment to the theme of disability, there’s a strong theme in all the episodes dealing directly with Ataru or the others with disability that doctors will not offer treatment or support in the community, and that there are no generalised services available to help parents with difficult children.
This leaves the mystery element somewhat on the backburner. Because scriptwriters like to come at the problem from both sides, there’s a suspicious death of a young boy. His mother has a track record of abusing him so, not surprisingly, she’s suspected of killing him. Indeed, there’s clear evidence the doctor who examined the boy a few days before he died, turned his eyes away from the evidence of bruising and burns. It’s not just the disabled whose rights are ignored. The hospital and healthcare services protect the parents from unwanted attention, and fail to protect the children. The problem in this episode is to establish the cause of death. In a muted way, Ataru provides the clues, but it’s really left to Shunichi Sawa to put it all together. Shunichi Sawa also argues with Larry, effectively alleging that he’s been abusing the boy then man for all the years he’s had him in his control. At the end of the episode, Ataru collapses and is left in a coma in hospital. The implication is that he’s damaging himself by using his brain in this way to solve crimes. With just two more episodes to go, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
In a way, we have to see episodes 10 and 11 as a linked pair because, although there are two separate cases, they are factually linked. More importantly, the scriptwriters also bring the broader story of what will happen to Ataru to what feels to be the right conclusion. By now, we have competing claims from the natural parents, Larry the US guardian courtesy of the FBI, and our indomitable Japanese duo. They all start off round the hospital bed where Ataru is lying in a coma (some of the time — the cunning soul surfaces from time to time to listen to the television playing beside the bed and to take in what the local police say about a new case). The parents are getting over their guilt at having let him go and are now prepared to look after him full-time. Maiko Ebina and Shunichi Sawa would hope to share in his life (and occasionally ask for his help on difficult cases). We also discover why he sees bubbles at certain psychologically important moments, and to understand the significance of the synchronised swimming show. When he does finally admit to being awake again, he’s quickly off and running with a car crash which, by chance, happens to be the same make and model as crashed with Maiko Ebina’s mother on board fifteen years ago. This immediate situation looks like an accident or suicide but Ataru knows the car was specifically designed to protect the driver and passengers in the event of fire. Since the driver burned to death, this makes the crash suspicious. The mechanism for causing the car crash is improbable. Worse, there’s absolutely no explanation of how it was managed. That said, once the crash has occurred, the coup-de-grace is entirely obvious.
This brings us on to the final case which is, of course, the death of Maiko Ebina’s mother fifteen years ago. She was also burned in the same make and model car. By coincidence, her husband was one of the designers of the car and knew exactly how a crash might be staged to look like an accident. He’s also still obviously feeling guilty. The question is why. Ataru sets out to investigate and begins by opening the grave and pulling out the bones. He does a quick count and is fascinated by the fact a finger on the left hand is missing. There’s also an odd mark on one skull fragment. He becomes interested in the two photographs recovered from the traffic monitoring cameras. Her eyes are open in both, the window opens between the two shots, and the bracelet disappears. This is all a salutary experience for Maiko Ebina. She’s been playing with the emotions of the families as she’s insisted on opening closed cases where an accident has been declared. This may produce a finding of suicide which might create problems in claiming life insurance or other death benefits. Or it might prove a murder in which case “justice” would be done. So how does she feel when the necessary implication of this investigation may be that her father killed her mother? Curiously, the script makes Ataru sensitive to the effects of the investigation and, to come extent, he offers comfort to Maiko Ebina as the case proceeds.
So this leaves the disposition of Ataru to resolve. If he returns to America, he can be given the best treatment by those who know him the best. Perhaps more importantly, he will be valued as a genius, not as a disabled man whose social skills prevent him from gaining acceptance. If he stays in Japan, his parents can offer him the love they should have given in the years before he was shipped off with Larry. But that’s going to be problematic because what will he do with his time? Maiko Ebina and Shunichi Sawa (and the rest of the Ebina family) offer him a more normal lifestyle. Even the local police are getting used to him and become more emotionally engaged in solving the cases because of his input. So that leaves only one answer in these unsentimental times. And, yes, our brainwashed Koshiro Inukai does recover his memory and takes his revenge (well, in a limited way).