Belgian author Georges Simenon wrote what came to be called romans durs, "hard stories," noir novellas of little people succumbing to vice and falling headfirst into the abyss. The best Japanese crime and thriller fiction I've encountered fit the same template: they're less about people solving crimes and restoring order (even if dark lessons come along the way), and more about how the criminal impulse is everyone's to know and succumb to. Deep Red (Shinku), the first of screenwriter and thriller novelist Hisashi Nozawa's works to find its way into English, starts with the violent death of a family and then burrows deeper. It follows the daughter who survived, surveys her welter of conflicting emotions, and watches as her fixation on the daughter of the killer grows to blot out everything else in her life.
The only reason eleven-year-old Kanako wasn't killed along with the rest of her family was because she was away on a school trip that week. She was having a fine time of it, too, until one of the counselors walked into her dorm in the middle of her night and told her in an iron voice to pack her things, because her family has been in "an accident". It takes her four excruciating hours to return to Tokyo by car, only to find that the "accident" was a mass murder that claimed the lives of her mother, father, and two younger brothers.
The killer, we learn, is a man named Norio Tsuzuki, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He was not schizoid, not on drugs, not trying to rob the house. As he explains in a statement to the court, using the genteel language of the hopeless petitioner, he had his reasons. He had a hard but honest life as a salesman of educational supplies. He lost his wife to a medical calamity. And he was swindled out of the life insurance settlement he got for his wife's death when a cold-blooded business partner of his tricked him into using it to co-sign a loan under false pretenses. That business partner was Kanako's father, and one night Norio decided he couldn't take it anymore, drove over to the other man's house, beat the children and wife to death with a sledgehammer, and strangled the father.
Kanako knows all of this, and knows it too well. By the time she's in college — living with an aunt, her education paid for out of a generous settlement fund — the death sentence on her family's killer has been upheld. She knows all of the documentation of the court, including Norio's statement. And she knows other facts withheld from public knowledge: the name of Norio's daughter, Miho. She wants to believe, as per her therapist, that time will heal all wounds, and that the flashbacks to those four horrible hours she spent in the car will also fade. She'd like to have a halfway normal relationship with her photographer boyfriend. But she'd also like closure of a kind that neither therapy nor society at large can give her, not least of all because she's a woman.
She performs a little amateur detective work and tracks down the cop who first came across the bodies, now a security guard. From him, she learns Miho now works in a bar, and it's not hard for Kanako to go there under the ruse of taking her boyfriend and chat up Miho as she slings drinks. And then, as Kanako learns of Miho's abusive boyfriend, she hatches a plan: take her revenge by turning the daughter of a murderer into a murderer herself.
For most of its length, Deep Red turns its screws wonderfully tight. Nozawa tells everything from Kanako's viewpoint (barring the chapters that are the killer's written confession), and lets her build her case for her revenge brick by brick. Her survivor's guilt has mutated into something far worse: resentment against a world that will forever condescend to her the minute anyone finds out about her legacy. Right up to the climax, we're being led to believe Kanako will either succumb to the worst of her instincts, or pull out of her nosedive too late to save either herself or another.
But then Nozawa blinks, and opts instead for a soggy sort-of-happy ending, one that wraps up far too neatly for a story this inherently messy. Contrast this with Natsuo Kirino's Out, with its ceaseless headlong dive to the bottom. Or, come to think of it, Akira Yoshimura's On Parole, where we did not know until literally the last page of the book which way the winds of fate would shift for our protagonist. Here, the sappy ending comes early enough that we have to sit through another dozen or so pages of Nozawa putting a too-precise bow on everything.
I've read the book twice now, and mulled over why Nozawa elected to do this. The problem, as I see it, is that he has two stories in mind here: the jet-black crime thriller; and the story of a young woman's dealing with, and healing from, a great trauma. It isn't impossible for those stories to live under the same roof, or for the former to inform the latter, but the way it's done here feels like a forced cohabitation. The intentions of each half of the story don't complement the other. There's a nice sequence in the climax where Kanako plays through her "four hours" once more as a way to confront it squarely and grapple with its meaning, but again, it feels like it belongs to a story that chose a different path to begin with, and not a climax to this very different one.
A shame, because what comes before all that is quite good indeed. Nozawa's name caught my attention back when I learned he wrote the screenplay for Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut Violent Cop. More of his work deserves to be in English, especially if it avoids the error in judgment that plagues this book.