James Melville began his Superintendent Otani mystery series with the publication of The Wages of Zen in 1979. The series reflects an interest in Japan resulting from the author’s posting there as a cultural diplomat in the 1960’s as well as his long-time interest in mystery fiction.
The Otani series falls into the police procedural genre of mystery writing. Otani is by no means a great detective but is extremely competent in directing the operations of a large Japanese prefectural police department. Melville employs both realism and humor in his work, and he uses highly innovative plots and an interesting array of characters that together provide a rich vehicle for the exploration of cultural differences between Japan and the West. His work has been well received critically and has been compared to the classic works of Georges Simenon as well as to the writings of such modern authors of the ethnic mystery as H. R. F. Keating, Tony Hillerman, and James McClure.
Although Melville has done other mystery writing and has published works in other literary genres, it is the Otani series that forms the basis for his reputation.