Book review:『背いて故郷』by Tatsuo Shimizu

Cover of 背いて故郷. The cover illustration depicts a round rearview mirror on a grey sky. In the reflection of the mirror, there is a man standing near a road.
Title: 背いて故郷 ( そむいてこきょう)
First published: 1985
Page Count: 518
Hitoshi Kashiwagi is captain of the Kyoyo Maru No.6 whose mission is to guide and protect the Japanese fishing boats allowed in the Soviet waters. But when the Kyoyo is turned into a spying boat, Kashiwagi refuses to play along and leaves his place to his friend, Keiichi Naruse. When Naruse is killed on board the Kyoyo, Kashiwagi feels guilty and does everything he can to find why Naruse was killed and by whom.

At first I was disappointed to see that the winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award was again a hardboiled novel, but 『背いて故郷』was really engrossing!

The first half of the book was a fantastic investigation led by someone who is not a detective but uses all the means at his disposition to find out the truth. As Kashiwagi was not on the Kyoyo anymore when the murder occurred, he needs to talk to the crewmen and gather every bits of information about Naruse’s activities. What was he up to? And why was he killed?

Obviously, the spying mission spices things up and Kashiwagi’s private investigation becomes more and more dangerous. And unfortunately, this is also the moment when I started enjoying the book less and less. The first half feels like a classic murder mystery, but the second half is more based on action, which is something that I don’t really like.

There is also something that I dislike and that I tend to associate with the hardboiled genre, and it is that even though the story is tell from Kashiwagi’s perspective (first-person narration), it feels like we see him from the outside. We don’t always have access to his train of thoughts, and we sometimes have to follow him without knowing what he is going to do and why. This feels very strange (in my opinion) with a first person narration, and it was particularly true for the second half of the novel.

What I did like though, is the setting of the novel. It talks about the fishing cooperatives, the life of the crewmen, a little bit of the relation between Japan and the Soviet Union concerning fishing, etc. This felt very new to me, and it was very well described and incorporated in the mystery.

If it was only for the first half of the novel, it would be an easy five stars, but I really don’t care for action scenes and the end was even a little foreseeable and a bit underwhelming in my opinion.