(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The translated mysteries of Miyuki Miyabe share a strong emphasis on the workings of the inner minds of the women perpetrators and the psychological and social factors that push them into crime. From the beginning, Miyabe is interested in the characteristics of modern Japanese society that may propel a woman beyond socially acceptable behavior.

Perhaps because ordinary, mundane crime is still relatively rare in Japan compared with the United States, the crimes that tend to stand out and shock the nation are often of an especially heinous and imaginative character. For a mystery writer like Miyabe, the challenge arises to offer her reader fictional villains with a special modus operandi that reveals a criminal energy rivaling that of the most outlandish real crime figures. At the same time, Miyabe juxtaposes the criminal with detective figures who, even though damaged by everyday life, nevertheless commit to upholding decency, morality, and human kindness.

In her greatly successful All She Was Worth, Miyabe combines elements of good sleuthing, echoes of hard-boiled detective fiction, and concise social observation and criticism. The fortunate combination of these elements in this novel may be what solidified her popular fame in Japan and made it the first of her books to be translated into English.

All She Was Worth showcases Miyabe’s keen interest in the intricacies of actual police work. The author has stated how she peruses publicly available materials on forensics and scientific approaches to criminal investigations and keeps in close contact with the public relations offices of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Thus she is able to build a realistic background for her detectives’ quests. At the same time, Miyabe is intensely interested in the psychological, social, and economic factors that may drive a nondescript young person, generally a woman, into a life of crime. Her analysis of the lures of consumer culture, which may trap a soul on a trajectory of no return, fascinated readers of All She Was Worth.

In Crossfire, Miyabe uses the supernatural as a metaphor for an individual’s desperate attempt to strike back at a society seen as severely out of kilter. Punishing criminals by willing fires to engulf them at first may liken the novel’s young Junko Aoki to a kind of supercharged Japanese Batman meting out justice on her own. However, in Miyabe’s world this approach backfires. Here the powers of society prove far more intolerant of a solitary vigilante than are the fictional denizens of Gotham City. Reinforcing the message in Shadow Family, Miyabe is at considerable pains to show that extrajudicial violence cannot be the correct way to end injustice.

Equally as convincing as her highly imaginative perpetrators are Miyabe’s detective protagonists. From Shunsuke Honma in All She Was Worth to the disillusioned Detective Chikako Ishizu in Crossfire and Shadow Family, Miyabe’s fictional counterparts to the world of crime are ordinary citizens who possess a strict, functioning moral guidance compass. Faced with the outlandish imagination of the criminal mind, these down-to-earth, middle-aged detectives reassert moral order and human decency even in a world that poses a threat to these values.

Japanese culture has always valued the poetic, the imaginative, and the beautiful tinged with a strong flavor of death. Samurai took pains to groom well before battle so their severed heads would make proper trophies if they lost in combat. Drawing on this tradition, Miyabe’s villains exude creativity, criminal energy and imagination. However, when they are brought down, social order is reestablished for everyday people. In addition, Miyabe avoids a Western tendency to excuse her villains’ behavior through their...

(The entire section is 1573 words.)