Books

The pang that unites Japan and Somerset

Visitors pray at the site of the 1985 Japan Airlines crash on Mount Osutaka (Getty)

While it would be difficult to write crime fiction that didn’t touch in some way on the subject of guilt, three new contributions to the genre are especially steeped in the themes of conscience and responsibility.

Seventeen, by Japanese former journalist Hideo Yokoyama (rivverrun, 404pp, £16.999), is the second of his novels to appear in English. In 2016, his Six Four, in which a police press officer made a personally disturbing breakthrough while supervising journalists reporting on a long-stalled disappearance case, was a big hit here.

Drawing even more directly on the author’s previous profession, the new book is in large part a docu-novel, showing a daily paper, the North Kanto Times, responding to the crash on its territory, in 1985, of a Japanese Airlines plane carrying 524 people, all assumed killed.

Yokoyama’s experience of reporting that story is reflected in the meticulous detail of both investigative journalism and air crash investigation, but the novel has concerns beyond historical recreation.

For those who live in cultures where corporations furiously resist taking responsibility – or governments set up lengthy and often inconclusive inquiries into scandals – there’s a provoking jolt when a rumour reaches the newsroom, soon after the accident, that the head of the airline is expected to take full responsibility in public. When Yuuki, the chief reporter, makes an error that costs the publishing company money, he calmly asks for the sum to be subtracted from his salary in monthly instalments.

These insights into Japanese culture – including the carefully calibrated protocols of bowing and remembrance of the dead – are part of the thrill of Yokoyama for an outsider audience.

But, if the deep sense of shame and accountability felt by his characters can feel almost other-worldly to a Western reader, older book-buyers at least will empathise with the novel’s secondary intention of lovingly recording the methods and technology of pre-digital print journalism.

Proper respect for the historical truth of what happened denies Yokoyama the extreme twists and surprises now expected of the genre, but he compensates through tensions and secrets among the journalist characters – especially in a framing story, set 17 years later, involving Yuuki’s debt to a colleague, which also speaks deeply to the theme of shame and guilt. This writer is a great find for wider audiences.

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The 23rd novel by Laura Lippman, one of the most consistently brilliant practitioners in American crime fiction, starts from the question of why society attributes more guilt to a mother who walks out on her children than to fathers who do the same.

In Sunburn (Faber and Faber, 299pp, £12.99), a woman calling herself Polly is hiding out in a Delaware motel from the private detective her husband has hired to find her. The sleuth, though, is looking for a “Pauline”, the name under which Polly lived with her family, or, anyway, that family. With a relentlessly escalating sense of jeopardy, Lippman explores the reasons a woman might choose to lie or leave.

An apparently simple sentence such as, “She said she didn’t want a wedding because she had no people”, carries multitudes of meaning through precise word choice: “said”, “people”. As ever with Lippman, the dialogue is movie-smart. Asked, “You from around here?”, Polly-Pauline replies: “Define from.”

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The deep underpinning of guilt in Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, The Western Wind (Jonathan Cape, 292pp, £16.99), rests on the narrator’s profession of confessor. John Reve, possibly too nudging a name for a cleric, is a Catholic priest in a Somerset village in 1491, lacking supervision by a bishop who is in jail for plotting to replace Henry VII with a pretender.

But the senior cleric at large, the Dean, urges the priest to use the confessional to investigate the death in the local river of a rich landowner: “A priest is also a judge and a sheriff, whether or not he wants to be.”

Harvey’s story works on many pleasurable levels, including as an ecclesiastical procedural – men hobbling around the fields are revealed to be enacting Reve’s penance to fill their shoes with stones.

A visceral sense of the smell and look of the medieval world – though clearly mediated through a modern sensibility – has knowing echoes of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Eco would also have admired the playfulness of the book’s shape, with the story receding backwards from Shrove Tuesday to Shrove Saturday, and the four sections having a palindromic structure in which chapters with the same title occur in reverse order. And Agatha Christie would recognise the cleverness of the reveal.

Literary snobs sometimes describe crime fiction as a “guilty pleasure”, but no reader need feel any shame about reading these pleasurable meditations on guilt.

Mark Lawson is a writer and broadcaster