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Posts Tagged ‘murder’

Strangers by Bill Pronzini

November 5, 2014 4 comments

Strangers by Bill Pronzini

For those of you who enjoy adding another notch to your reading gun, Strangers by Bill Pronzini (Tor-Forge, 2014), is the forty-first book in the series featuring the Nameless Detective (remembering, of course, that we now know him to be called Bill — not so nameless after all). This time, we find our heroic ex-cop and now PI has left his wife Kerry to continue her slow rehabilitation from the PTSD. After receiving a blast from the past and somewhat against his better judgement, he’s off to Mineral Springs, a small mining town that’s surviving but hardly ever going to feature on America’s most welcoming holiday destination lists. The source of this blast was Cheryl Rosmond (now going by her married name Hatcher). To fill in a little of the backstory, they had a relationship twenty years ago when Bill was a serving police officer. In those days, Bill was an even more hardline by-the-book individual and, as the regulations required, he passed on the good news that her brother Doug was a murderer. Said Doug committed suicide and Cheryl left him. You may wonder why she would contact him twenty years later. Even more, you may wonder why he should react by leaving immediately. The problem is Cheryl’s son, Cody. No! Let me stop here. This is not some good seed run bad. Although they had a sexual relationship, this is not Bill’s secret love child now grown up. Yet when a desperate mother calls out for his help, some measure of guilt sends him out to the car and the long drive to Nevada. This boy has been charged with committing three vicious rapes and needs help. Cheryl has no money and no-one else with the right level of expertise she can turn to.

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

When he arrives, he discovers that the reputation of mother and son could not be any lower. Her husband died of a heart attack four years ago and she has to work all hours as a waitress to cover living expenses. The son’s attitude has not made him any friends and he’s been unemployed for about six months. As far as the police and local DA are concerned, they have their man. Although the DNA results are in a long queue, they don’t feel they need wait for confirmatory evidence. He was seen in the area, he has no alibi, and both a ski-mask and bloodstained knife were found in his Jeep. Indeed, the entire neighbourhood is convinced the nineteen-year-old is guilty and a small campaign is in progress to drive the mother out of town as well. This is small-town America and there’s no compassion or forgiveness on display anywhere. The only people who seem to doubt Cody’s guilt are a girlfriend and the sheriff’s young nephew who was a fair-weather friend (when his disapproving parents were looking the other way). Needless to say, once Bill announces his mission in town, he rapidly acquires a fan club intent on encouraging him to take his unwanted carcass back where it came from.

What makes the resulting investigation so satisfying is the confrontation between stubborn professionalism and a prejudiced township saddened they stopped lynching young men like Cody as soon as they were satisfied of his guilt. As our not-easily-deterred investigator moves forward, chinks of light emerge. After talking with one of the rape victims, there may even be circumstantial evidence confirming Cody’s innocence. But, in default of DNA exoneration, probable cause for doubting guilt is not going to fly. As PI novels go, this strays rather pleasingly into noir territory as the small town’s secrets prove to be just as dark as those found in the bigger cities. I’ll leave it to you to read and so discover whether Cody is guilty. Needless to say, there must also be a resolution of the hanging thread of relationship between Bill and his ex. This proves rather sad as, for reasons which emerge during the course of the book, Cheryl is somewhat more dysfunctional that we might have suspected. The outcome is Bill’s departure from the town. This is necessary so the serial can proceed. You’ll have to decide whether you think the realism of the result hits the mark. I think it does, making this one of the better books in the serial for some time.

For reviews of three other novels by Bill Pronzini, see:
Camouflage
Hellbox
Nemesis.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

River of Glass by Jaden Terrell

November 3, 2014 Leave a comment

River-of-Glass-1023025-782508a3f5b5bfabcc74

Over the last two years, I’ve reviewed a few mystery novels with an agenda to deal with issues of contemporary importance. This has included the abnormally high murder rate in some Mexican towns, people trafficking, and so on. It may be significant that many of these novels dealing with the darker side of human nature are Scandinavian. The literal darkness that descends in the northern latitudes during their longer winters often seems to be matched by a fascination with human depravity in its various forms. This experience has led me, on some occasions, to feel somewhat manipulated. It’s not exactly that I’m beginning to suffer compassion fatigue. I haven’t yet lost my sense of the horror and real injustice suffered by the victims of these crimes. I’ve simply found the themes overly dominant, feeling as if these crimes are themselves being presented as a form of entertainment as we watch the not unnaturally depressed detectives follow the clues to trap the killers and imprison the abusers.

Thematically, River of Glass by Jaden Terrell (Permanent Press, 2014) is dealing with people trafficking. A number of young women have been induced to travel to America from Asia only to find themselves trapped in a living hell where they are taught to be submissive and then sold on to rich johns. All this comes to Jared McKean courtesy of a body in the dumpster at the back of the building where he has his office. The next day an Asian woman is waiting outside his office. She claims to be his half-sister. Backed up by a number of photographs, she explains his father went through a form of local marriage when he was serving in Vietnam. They were expecting him to go back after the war, but he never did. Now her daughter has gone missing in America. She had insisted on coming to find her grandfather. Once he overcomes his scepticism, this sets Jared off on a search for his niece.

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Jared (Beth) Terrell

Under normal circumstances, he would call on the help of his old friend in the local police force. But he’s somewhat distracted. This leaves his main point of contact the temperamental Malone who has yet to warm up to Jared’s approach to investigating crime. Unfortunately, although he begins to make progress thanks to all his friends, the local law enforcement focus shifts to investigate the activities of a bomber who claims to be exterminating people who have shown themselves to be enemies of justice. This leaves Jared and his half-sister in the driving seat of the investigation without official support.

Although we have scenes embedded in the broad narrative explaining what’s happening to those kept imprisoned, the reader’s eye is kept squarely on the characters of those in pursuit. Since Jared’s disabled son goes through a health crisis, the emotional complexities of his life are laid bare. At a time when he wants and needs to be there for his son, he discovers he has another previously unsuspected part of the family to worry about. In the end the compromises he makes persuade his half-sister into greater recklessness than is prudent. It’s at this point we discover the significance of the book’s title which is appropriately vicious.

What makes this book so satisfying is the balance between the awfulness of the treatment endured by those in captivity, and the determination of those in pursuit to find out who’s responsible. The result is a proper context for the darkness which offers depth and some affirmation for the essential resilience of the human spirit. Those who endure, find some redemption. Those who fight for what’s right find themselves the victim of their own naïveté, but nevertheless can still draw enough strength to continue when the truth emerges. This makes River of Glass one of the best thrillers of the year so far. It’s powerful without overwhelming the sense of compassion we should all feel for those victimised in this way. I strongly recommend this book.

For a review of the first two books in the series, see:
A Cup Full of Midnight
Racing the Devil.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Lamentation by Joe Clifford

November 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Lamentation-A-Novel-1006654-8f5a25c5c1efe1c822b0

One of the more abused words in the English language is “simple”. I suppose most people take it to mean uncomplicated or, in a slightly less forgiving sense, plain which is one of these ambiguous words. Yet once you start thinking about the range of connotational meanings, it becomes obvious just how complicated the word “simple” can be. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the high praise of lucidity and transparency. We value material that’s intelligible or accessible. Yet the same qualities of simplicity can be described as facile and superficial. A person described as simple is not fully mentally competent.

So when I label Lamentation by Joe Clifford (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) as a deceptively simple book, you have to wait for clarification of precisely what I mean. This is a first person narrative featuring Jay, a man who’s quite intelligent but, for various reasons, prefers a life without full engagement and relationships without full commitment. This makes him a frustrating person who makes a few dollars here and there working at the coalface end of the antiques business. He’s one of these people who works properties that fall vacant when the owner dies and there’s no one immediately available to claim title to the contents. He strips the place of anything of value and passes them on to the trade. As winter takes a grip in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, he finishes his last job for the year and has a lean period to look forward to. This financial bind is more more extreme because he has a son and pays whatever he can to his ex to help look after him.

Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford

This hand-to-mouth life is disrupted when the police call. Chris, his junky brother, is in trouble yet again. Except this time, it seems more serious. When the brothers briefly meet up, there’s the same paranoia and bullshit. The next morning, Jay wakes up to find Chris has gone. Then it’s suddenly more serious. A man who was in a loose business relationship with Chris is found dead. Now the police are more determined to find Chris, and Jay gets sucked into looking for him. To say these efforts are amateurish and ineffective is high praise for someone like Jay. This is not something he’s ever really thought about before and, since he’s not overly fond of his brother, he finds the entire experience makes him increasingly angry. When he could be spending time with his son (and ex), he’s suddenly experiencing the possibility of being beaten up, closely followed by actually being knocked unconscious and having his apartment tossed.

At first, I confess this was not very exciting. I had little or no interest in our first-person protagonist and the basic situation seemed rather obvious. Except it winds up into a very unexpected climax of considerable emotional power. So what was initially, and even in retrospect, a pretty simple, by-the-numbers plot with a resolution we’ve seen before, turns out to be a genuine success. Despite all my forebodings, this simple little thing proved to be a real big hitter.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Unnatural-Murder-986428-fc399550babc6d57bd10

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.

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

Connie Dial representing expertise and authenticity

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.

Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

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.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

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.

Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori)

Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori)

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.

Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami)

Larry Inoue (Hiroaki Murakami)

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).

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

The third episode of Ataru (2012) sees us moving slightly closer to a better understanding of who the hero of this show might be. The dogged Japanese police have finally tracked down the source of the signals that keep mentioning their “missing man”. Yes, it’s the American Embassy and, in turn, their spies are now monitoring the activities of this particular police unit. The episode’s mystery to be solved is a man who has apparently fallen into the sea while night fishing, i.e. it looks like an accident. But, when he sees photographs of the injuries, Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is quick to point out that the blow to the head is not consistent with the break in the leg. If he fell head-first, that would explain the head wound. If he fell feet-first, that would explain why his leg was broken. This leads us into a socially interesting family saga in which it appears the victim was less than faithful to his wife. He died while he was supposedly on a four-day working trip, but the assistant manager of the family business confirms the real purpose was to meet up with his mistress. Ataru is on hand to give them the clue to the only shop in Japan using a particular set of stones to decorate nails. From this, a possible candidate for the mistress emerges, but she has an alibi for the night the man was supposed to have died. We then come to one of these genuine “huh?” moments. Ataru suggests the deceased had involuntarily consumed the kind of minute sea creatures that scavenge no matter where they find themselves. Having swallowed them on hitting the water, they would have begun to consume the stomach contents. This would potentially have thrown out the estimate of the time of death. Using this information, the police team is able to pull in the two people most likely to have been involved and, after interrogation, one of them cracks and admits the murder. The precise sequence of events proves to be culturally fascinating and not at all what we Westerners might have expected. Anyway, at the end, the Americans are on the trail of Ataru and are ready to pull in their man when the opportunity arises.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura), Ataru (Masahiro Nakai), and Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

The fourth episode has us on a small airfield. It’s self-regulating, i.e. it has no control tower and the pilots are supposed to file the necessary paperwork centrally and communicate with each other in real time to avoid accidents. On this occasion, a small plane has gone off the end of the runway while supposedly attempting a take-off. There are signs the pilot struck his head at different points around the cockpit, the combination of blows causing death. As we’ve now come to expect, the senior police officers are quick to write this off as an accident, but circumstances conspire against this view, i.e. it may be a suicide. Meanwhile Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) and Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) have finally decided to place Ataru in a hospital. The Americans are following them as they go to the hospital and wait outside. In due course, Ataru emerges and, when his minder approaches him, he willingly gets into the big black SUV. However, on the way back to the embassy and later inside, Ataru shows signs of independence. Much to his minder’s surprise, it seems their man is becoming self-motivating when it comes to the investigation of crime. They decide to observe and call for copies of all the police files where he might have offered assistance. The plane crash does turn out to have been rather more complicated than it first appeared, and there’s a love interest involved as well. Yet again I’m undecided whether the basic factual sequence of events is actually plausible. It does require a lot to happen without there being any obvious mark on the plane that crashed. I suppose, with a heavy sigh, I accept it because the final coup de grace was definitely a homicide no matter how the parties eventually arrived in that situation. So this leaves me with something of a dilemma. The individual mysteries to be solved are not very well designed to fit into the police procedural mould. They really only make sense when you look back with the clues supplied by Ataru, i.e. the episodes are written to fit the clues. But the backstory of Ataru’s identity and what precisely the Americans are doing is proving quite interesting. The general response of the Japanese characters to Ataru is also culturally fascinating.So that means I’ll keep watching it to discover how the plot all fits together.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2
Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

Ataru (2012) Episodes 1 and 2

September 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Ataru-p2

Ataru (2012) is a rather surprising series from Japan. The titular Ataru (Masahiro Nakai) is disabled so, to that extent, the producers are breaking the mould by having someone with obvious problems in a leading role. That said, the way in which people respond to this young man’s behaviour is very disappointing. So let’s start off with the formula employed. Detective or mystery series frequently feature someone who has high-level abilities and some challenging social features. So, for example, Galileo acts as an external advisor to the Tokyo Police Department while continuing employment as a professor of physics. He’s socially gauche, disconcerted by children, and behaves with some degree of eccentricity in other social contexts. So these are characters which balance some degree of ability with disability.

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru (Masahiro Nakai)

Ataru has savant syndrome, i.e. is mentally disabled, usually with some degree of autism, but has exceptional skills in one limited area of human activity. Some savants have advanced calculating or musical skills. Ataru is shown as having a heightened level of sensitivity to external stimuli, picking up words, spoken and written, and seeing the world as oddly coloured images with amazing attention to detail. This has apparently enabled him to absorb vast amounts of information on what seem to be entirely random subjects. So, for example, he can survey a number of screws on the floor and tell that one of them is manufactured in Taiwan while the rest are Japanese. He can also tell by observation that an aluminium tube has a nonstandard composition. Coming new to this series, we’re expected to find such ability plausible. There’s just one problem. He can’t speak to people. In part this is his autism, but it’s also a feature of the fact he speaks many words in English, presumably because he’s spent a long time abroad. This makes the series somewhat unique in having the feature character unable to speak the kind of dialogue expected of mystery detectives.

We’re also led to infer this young man is an important asset for a “foreign” agency (probably American) yet he’s left unsupervised at Tokyo airport and wanders off. The agency then spends the rest of the series trying to find him without admitting to the local authorities that he’s lost. Frankly, if he’s that important, he would be under constant supervision. To his handlers, he’s a known quantity and should be treated as needing full-time management. It’s also baffling he should have so much money with him (as US dollars). Although he understands enough of the world to buy food and has some understanding of scales of monetary value, there’s no explanation of why he should have a wallet stuffed full of money, but nothing else by which to identify him. You should think if he was prone to walking off, he would have an RFID tag taped to his ankle or at least have a card in his pocket with a telephone number saying, “This man needs help. Call this number.”

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama)

So Maiko Ebina (Chiaki Kuriyama) is the lone woman in the local police department. As we have come to expect, she’s an example of patriarchal tokenism. She featured in adverts and some video presentations about life as a police officer and has become a pin-up girl. But she’s not taken seriously when she tries to investigate real crime. It’s left to Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura) to act as a buffer between her and the rest of the department. From a very brief observation of the scene of an explosion in a factory, Maiko Ebina wants to treat the death of one worker as suspicious whereas all the senior detectives write it off as an accident. When she returns to the scene, she meets Ataru who gives her a number of totally obscure clues which she then wrestles with. In due course, the solution to these clues convince Shunichi Sawa there’s a real crime to investigate. In due course, they track down a critical link in the chain and, incredibly, we’re then told who was responsible. We have never met this person. We have no idea why the murder was arranged. Before you can even begin to think about it. the episode has ended. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The focus is on the eccentric clues and not on solving the case by formal police work. The production also keeps breaking off for what the producers hope is humour. I’m not saying one or two of the jokes are not amusing, but a sad number of them are actually making fun of the disabled man, e.g. in his lack of self-awareness when it comes to wearing clothes in public.

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Shunichi Sawa (Kazuki Kitamura)

Now here comes the second crunch. In her first interactions with Ataru, he hits and then bites Maiko Ebina (actually, as a character, she’s quite annoying and deserves to be hit). Yet despite not apparently recognising this man is disabled, she accepts this abuse and instead of calling in medical support to diagnose and offer the right type of treatment, she gives him a place to live. If you visit Japan, it’s rare for you ever to see anyone disabled. The vast majority of the abled never meet anyone disabled. Indeed, in this series, Ataru is left at the police station and, within a short period, the staff say he’s out of control and want him removed. Why? Because he makes a fuss when his hotdog does not have any lettuce in it. In Japan, no one ever has lettuce in their hotdogs and, if they do, they keep quiet about it when at work. It’s not an exaggeration to say prejudice against the disabled is institutionalised. It’s only when Maiko Ebina’s brother, Sho Ebina (Yuta Tamamori — a member of a boy band) who’s a medical student meets Ataru that we have an informal diagnosis.

The second episode is equally odd. The trio happen to be in a flower shop when a man drops down dead. His dying words are, “Blue roses.” Ataru is fixated by some spit which the dying man had dropped. Our savant diagnoses this as gastric reflux disorder but, in a quick screen for poisons, the forensic department fails to find anything suspicious. His wife confirms the deceased had heart disease. The doctor treating him was giving him drugs for arrhythmia. But Ataru offers two hints by a roundabout route. The first is a change in the way the deceased knotted his tie. The second relates to eyeballs. An hour later, we have an admission of murder which, in a way, was not actually necessary. Sorry, that’s ambiguous. The man might have deserved to die two or more years ago, but not because of his recent behaviour. At least the plot followed a more conventional police procedural track with the officers solving the case. The only other issue of interest is that there may be a question surrounding the way in which Maiko Ebina’s mother died some fifteen years ago.

For reviews of other episodes, see:
Ataru (2012) Episodes 3 and 4
Ataru (2012) Episodes 5 to end

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