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by Miyuki Miyabe
Kodansha International, February 2005
192 pages
ISBN: 4770030029

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Miyuki Miyabe is a best-selling mystery writer in Japan, and SHADOW FAMILY is the second of her books to be translated into English. The first, ALL SHE WAS WORTH, appeared in the US in 1996.

Sergeant Etsuro Takegami, a desk jockey in the Tokyo Police Department, is more skilled at making sure forms are correctly and completely filled out than he is at interrogating suspects, but when the precinct's star detective is hospitalized, the investigation of the murder of a middle-aged salary man and his mistress falls to Takegami. Fortunately, he's not alone. A motherly female detective with a mysterious past named Chikako Ishizu has been called in from another precinct for the final phase of the investigation.

The police discover that the victim, Ryosuke Tokoroda, has been a regular participant in an internet chatroom, playing the role of dad in a surrogate family that included a wife, son and daughter. The daughter in this role-play exercise took on the name Kazumi, which is also the real name of Tokoroda's very real and emotionally neglected daughter. This 'family' existed for months and even met once in real life, according to the email records stored on the dead man's computer.

The entire book is set in the interrogation room. Takegami questions all of the members of the internet family while Tokoroda's real daughter watches from behind a two-way mirror. She may be able to identify some strangers she has seen talking with her father as members of his chatroom family.

The first few pages of the book are confusing and drag the reader into a seemingly endless sea of detail about the structure and function of the Tokyo police, but after the introduction is out of the way, the story really heats up. The masterful pacing allows the suspense to build to a nerve-wracking pitch as the real Kazumi stares at the on-line version of herself and the chatroom characters reveal the isolation and longing that led them to pretend to be family.

The intricate puzzle of the story is expertly constructed. Without leaving the room, Miyabe builds her plot layer upon layer, twisting and turning the reader's attention like a magician. We know that one of these five people is the likely murderer, but suspicion moves from one to another as this story of betrayal unravels.

This book offers what appears to be an authentic look at Tokyo police procedure. Unfortunately, the full impact of the story is lost because the translator has not served this author well. Literary translation is difficult, but Juliet Carpenter's language careens from the cliches of forties noir to misuses of modern slang, distracting the reader from the beauty of this tightly-structured character study.

If you're looking for some insight into Japanese culture, you'll find the family dynamics interesting. The contrast between the way the Japanese detectives conduct this investigation and what we have come to know of American police procedure from crime novels and television will give you something to think about.

Let's hope that the publisher finds a new translator for future English publications of Miyabe's work. In the meantime, if you can overlook the opening and some pretty clunky language, I think you'll find this novel a quick and thought-provoking read.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, March 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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