The body of a brutally murdered man is found beneath a train, and the police begin their investigation with only two clues: that the victim and a young man were speaking in a distinct accent and they spoke the word “Kameda.” With no more than these scant pieces of evidence, Inspector Imanishi, one of the most dogged and meticulous inspectors in the history of crime fiction, uncovers the identity of the victim, the history of the murderer, and the connection between the two.
Imanishi, a writer of Haikus and inspector of wrongs, moves through his investigation as though he were attempting to see the big picture from the vantage point of the tiniest detail. At every turn, he explores the anomalous: misheard utterances, disjointed coincidences, and discarded paper. When he can’t place something in an ordered composition, he can’t ignore the disorder. Imanishi’s drive fills the novel with meaning when, at times, the reader has no sense of the plot’s direction. We know how we arrived at this point, but like an impatient police chief, we can’t fathom the next step. The connections aren’t yet clear, but we have faith in the dogged detective, a faith that ultimately pays off.
Imanishi’s approach echoes the literal translation of the Japanese title for the novel-Vessel of Sand, which suggests, perhaps, that we cannot escape the vessel of life, in this case the circumstances of birth and the flow of fate inexorably toward the delta of change, as time slips through our fingers. Mystery novels exist as riddles, and the reader and protagonist solve the riddle together, returning the world of the novel to an ordered state. Matsumoto’s novel follows this formula in a way that feels uniquely Japanese while crisscrossing a countryside deeply scarred and undergoing great change. Not unlike its protagonist, the novel weaves languorously through the plot, taking time for pleasantries, contemplation, and complication. Imanishi’s investigation, through both his approach and the specificities of the case, engages the changes occurring in Japanese society-the history of the war, and the future of art, philosophy, and cultural worldview. The world, as Imanishi understands it, maintains an orderliness. Everything that happens stems from a cause, and tracing the result to the cause leads him to the truth. Truth and order, however, are not the same, and order depends on one’s perspective.
Seicho Matsumoto is considered Japan’s most accomplished writer of mystery and detective fiction. Over four decades, he published more than 450 works. Matsumoto first published his work serially in a newspaper. Ten to sen (Points and Lines) was a big hit as a book in 1958, selling over a million copies. In 1961, Suna do utsuwa (Vessel of Sand, published in English in 1989 as Inspector Imanishi Investigates sold over four million copies, and its film adaptation became a box-office hit.