James Melville Essay - Critical Essays

Roy Peter Martin


The Superintendent Otani mysteries are an outgrowth of James Melville’s love of mysteries, especially the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and his interest in discovering a vehicle for the discussion of cultural differences between Japan and the West. He first attempted writing in the genre in London in the mid-1970’s, when he produced a draft of the work that was later to become, with considerable revision, the second book in the Otani series, The Chrysanthemum Chain (1980). In the original manuscript, Otani appeared only briefly as a minor character, but over time his significance for the author grew, and he became the linchpin of the series. The Chrysanthemum Chain also featured a young British diplomat named Andrew Walker, who was probably modeled at least in part on the author. Walker appears only in that book.

The Wages of Zen

The Wages of Zen, the first book in the Otani series, introduces the principal characters as well as some plot devices and many of the stylistic elements that characterize the series. The principal characters are Tetsuo Otani, superintendent of the Hyogo Prefectural Police, and his two main assistants, Jiro Kimura and Ninja Noguchi. Melville presents Otani’s family: his wife, Hanae, and their married daughter Akiko and her husband, Akira (although Akiko and Akira are mentioned only briefly, they figure more prominently in later volumes in the series). The author uses the family members to provide glimpses into Japanese domestic life, weaving in both modern and traditional elements.

The plot, which involves the murder of a foreigner living at a Zen Buddhist temple where a number of other foreigners also reside, demonstrates a fairly common plot device found in the series, one that serves to create a high level of interaction between Japanese and non-Japanese characters. Most of the books in the series are about crimes involving foreigners. This allows Melville to introduce a wide range of foreign types into his works. In this book, for example, Melville inserts two American women, one of whom is African American; a British woman; a young Danish man; and an Irish Catholic priest.

The Wages of Zen also employs a narrative technique found in many of the books in the series, that of shifting back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the stories and perspectives of Japanese and non-Japanese characters. Melville has described his use of this technique as a way of accentuating the cultural differences between the two sets of characters.

The book, like the others in the series, contains numerous examples of Japanese traditions and practices that serve to create a sense of the often unusual (from a Western perspective) character of everyday life in Japan. These include eating rice crackers wrapped in a strip of seaweed, using a Japanese squat toilet, and sleeping on...

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