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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

On the surface, The Ruined Map might be seen as a Japanese version of the American “hard-boiled” detective novel such as those authored by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler’s Marlowe or Hammett’s Spade, the protagonist of Kb Abe’s novel appears to be, in the beginning of the novel,...

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On the surface, The Ruined Map might be seen as a Japanese version of the American “hard-boiled” detective novel such as those authored by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler’s Marlowe or Hammett’s Spade, the protagonist of Kb Abe’s novel appears to be, in the beginning of the novel, a tough, smart, naturalistic survivor of the city’s “mean streets” whose task it is to negotiate unfeelingly the labyrinth of crossed paths, conspiracies, and conflicted emotions that typify the genre. Yet, very soon, the reader of The Ruined Map notices that Abe’s investigator is enormously sensitive to the details of the chaotic physical environment of a large, expanding city and obsessed with mapping its intricacies. The occasion for the narrator’s activities in this regard is his employment by a young married woman, Nemuro Haru, who asks the narrator to find her husband, now missing for six months. The wife provides the investigator with little information about the details of or motivations behind her husband’s disappearance: a book of matches, a photograph, a worn raincoat, and the fact that he vanished only hundreds of yards from his house while on the way to a meeting with his colleague, Tashiro. The narrator is immediately suspicious. Why has Nemuro Haru taken so long to seek the assistance of a private detective? Why does she provide so little information about her husband, his life-style, and his personality? The narrator’s suspicions are increased when he learns that the missing man’s brother has been “on the case” since the disappearance and has discovered nothing. The narrator wonders who this mysterious brother is, what he does for a living, and what his involvement might be with Nemuro Hiroshi’s disappearance—to the extent that he begins to doubt the brother’s identity. Has the wife convinced someone (a lover? an enemy of her husband?) to pose as her brother-in-law in order to confuse the detective? What would be her motivation in doing so? Such enigmas, with their endless solutions, fill the pages of Abe’s novel.

With little to go on, the narrator begins to investigate: He visits the restaurant whose name and telephone number appear on the matchbook; he goes to the wholesale fuel house where the missing man last worked; he “runs into” (clearly, not coincidentally) the mysterious brother; he frequently visits the mysteriously complacent wife; he meets with Tashiro, the man whom Nemuro Hiroshi was supposed to meet in a subway station before he disappeared.

As he proceeds in his investigation, the information begins to flood in and the narrator begins to formulate a number of theories about the disappearance. Perhaps, he thinks, the two brothers were working together on a corrupt business venture involving the sale of propane gas to new developers in the city when something went wrong, making it necessary for one brother to dispose of the other. Perhaps the missing man’s penchant for nude photographs and his brother’s involvement in a homosexual prostitution ring indicate that either a sex crime or connections with the city’s underworld are responsible for the disappearance. On the other hand, it might be that the wife and the brother conspired to kill the husband, then hired a private investigator as a “cover.” Tashiro has a packet of nude photographs which he says he was to give to Nemuro Hiroshi at their last meeting: Are these pictures (all of them shot from a peculiar angle so that the woman’s face cannot be seen) of a prostitute, as Tashiro at first claims them to be, or are they pictures of the investigator’s client, and how are they connected to the disappearance?

The crossed purposes revealed by theories about the disappearance are further complicated by the narrator’s extraordinary perceptual awareness of the physical world to the extent that there is, in the novel, a continual sensory overload of information. At the same time, he is gifted or cursed with what might be called a “hypothetical imagination,” a tendency to create in his mind multiple explanations of each event or possibility and to draw these out to their most extreme conclusions. The narrator’s overly active imagination, coupled with his exaggerated attention to detail, suggests that Abe provides the reader with a parodic version of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, who uses both his empirical and artistic sensibilities to solve crimes. In any case, the narrator is lost in the labyrinth of the city. Ruined or incorrect maps, conflicting fragments of information, and a plethora of visual impressions combine to give the narrator the sense that he is cut adrift in a Borges-like world where the choice of direction seems infinitely open yet constricted by the materiality of the physical world: “One had no idea of the direction governing these walking people, where they came from, where they were going. Perhaps it was because, with the tiled floors and the tiled pillars, all the lines of the passageways and stairs converged here, and anyone could follow the line of his choice.”

Yet, despite the confusion, things do “happen” in The Ruined Map. When the narrator visits a construction site where the brother, apparently, provides food and prostitutes to the workers, he witnesses the brother’s brutal and senseless death at the hands of rival gang members. The investigator ferrets out a possible connection between a city councilman and corruption in the new developments, though he is not able to tie this into the disappearance. He is, at one point, beaten nearly senseless by a group of men in a restaurant (the same one identified on the book of matches) when it becomes clear that he is close to uncovering an illegal transportation ring. As he becomes more deeply implicated in the case, the narrator begins to feel identified with Nemuro Hiroshi, even to the extent of sharing his bed with his wife. Yet none of these events offers a way out of the labyrinth: By the end of the novel, the narrator has resigned his position in the detective agency and has himself, like his predecessor, disappeared into the city, anonymous and amnesiac. Thus, seemingly, the solution to this mystery lies with the assimilation of the detective/narrator’s identity into that of the lost man.

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