Point Zero by Seichō Matsumoto

Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Seichō Matsumoto is widely regarded as Japan’s greatest populariser of crime fiction, being a prolific author of it himself. Last year, Penguin published a new translation of his first novel from 1958, Points and Lines as Tokyo Express, I was seeing reviews for it everywhere, including Shiny New Books where Kaggsy did the honours (review here).

However, I’m rather glad I didn’t read it then (although I did acquire a copy, natch!), for his third novel, Point Zero, originally published in 1959 in Japan shares many similarities in plot mechanics: both have suicides, cyanide poisonings and lots of trains. However, where Tokyo Express has a shabby detective and his colleague investigating, Point Zero is told from a different point of view.

Teiko uses the services of a matchmaker to find a husband, and marries Kenichi Uhara, an advertising man returning to Tokyo with a promotion from being stationed at Kanazawa in Hokuriku prefecture, outside the capital for two years. Although she knows so little about her new husband who is ten years older than her, Teiko is happy with the match, and they go on a four day honeymoon by Lake Suwa. It’s the end of a day…

“I’m tired,” said Kenichi, getting to his feet.
Teiko stayed where whe was, seated on the tatami, but he came over and threw his arms around her.
“You’re lovely. So lovely,” he repeated as he held her in his arms. “Your lips are as soft as marshmallows.”
He sounded passionate, but Teiko couldn’t help feeling she was being compared to another.

It’s only to be expected that an older man may have had previous experience with women, but she has no idea, not knowing her new husband well at all yet. They return to the city, and Kenichi has to go on one last trip back to Kanazawa, to hand over all the accounts to his replacement Yoshio Honda. Teiko goes to wave him off at Ueno station, and that is the last time she will ever see Kenichi. Imagine the shock when she receives a telephone call to say they’d found his shoes and a suicide note neatly left on a clifftop notorious for suicides a way up the Noto peninsula from Kanazawa. Kenichi’s brother Sotaro and his wife are equally shocked; Sotaro is unable to join her in Kanazawa immediately, but will come as soon as he can. Teiko senses he knows things he is not sharing about her husband, but being a young woman of impeccable manners, she can’t interrogate him about it.

Teiko arrives in Kanazawa where she is met by Honda, a lovely chap, both friendly and respectful and very keen to help her solve the mystery. Teiko, initially a fish out of water, will tease out the very complex story behind her husband’s disappearance, but a little knowledge proves to be a dangerous thing for those that will help her – I did mention poisoning above already – but who will die? The blurb for this novel gives further big hints to the direction the mystery will take, but I won’t elucidate further.

What I found refreshing about this novel was that Teiko was able to wheedle so much information out of all the men concerned in the story. Despite their deference to the young widow, although she has no body as proof of his demise, few refuse to give her the information she requests, couched in politeness as it is. She is also able to travel on her own, and I admit I was slightly surprised at the amount of freedom she had, but then I remembered that it is post-war in the late 1950s now and things had moved on from the position of women in the last Japanese novel I read, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, from the mid-1930s. By this time there are many Western influences already creeping into the way Japanese women can dress and behave.

We do get little glimpses into the countryside as Teiko travels around on the trains which seem to go everywhere. Although the novel is set in December and there is snow everywhere, there is little feel, however, for the difficulties posed to Teiko in getting around – she manages rather well! Instead of giving us nature notes, Matsumoto concentrates on Teiko’s mind as she gathers information, enabling her to make those intuitive leaps that will lead her to solve the increasingly convoluted tragedy that this mystery really is.

Point Zero was both interesting and a satisfying read indeed. I am delighted to be part of the blog tour for it, and glad to have discovered another Japanese author to search out more by.

I can also tie into the Japanese Literature Challenge and Read Indies happening this month!

Source: Review copy – Thank you! Bitter Lemon Press paperback original, 286 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

5 thoughts on “Point Zero by Seichō Matsumoto

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve cleverly managed to let my copy of Toyko Express fall down the back of my bedside bookcase. Retrieving it means moving several piles that have accumulated in front! But having read this one, I need to compare and contrast I think.

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