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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Silent Dead

Honda Tetsuya

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To purchase The Silent Dead

Title: The Silent Dead
Author: Honda Tetsuya
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 292 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Silent Dead - US
The Silent Dead - UK
The Silent Dead - Canada
Blutroter Tod - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: ストロベリーナイト
  • Translated by Giles Murray
  • The first in the series featuring Reiko Himekawa

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Our Assessment:

B : a very mixed bag, but entertaining enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 9/7/2016 Mark Schreiber
Publishers Weekly . 28/3/2016 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(F)ellow cops are portrayed as sexist, devious, eccentric, self-serving and thoroughly dislikable, to the point of stretching the readerís credulity. (...) Adoption by the translator, or editor, of overly colloquial English expressions serves as an unnecessary irritant. (...) Hondaís whodunit wins points for originality. He plays fair by obeying the established tenets of the mystery genre, without resorting to secret passageways, identical twins or a dog that doesnít bark because it recognizes the perpetrator." - Mark Schreiber, The Japan Times

  • "Evocative prose, a complex plot, and richly developed characters distinguish this inventive police procedural. Honda writes elegantly about violence and compassionately about its victims, seamlessly incorporating origin stories for both Reiko and her quarry that add texture, heft, and verisimilitude." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Silent Dead is the first in a series of police procedurals featuring twenty-nine year-old Reiko Himekawa, who made lieutenant two years earlier and is now a squad leader in the Homicide Division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Her success on the job at such a young age may impress, but her mother is more worried that she still hasn't settled down and married yet, and keeps setting her up on dates (which, more often than not, Reiko manages to evade or cut short). Reiko also comes with other baggage: something terrible happened to her when she was still in high school ("That black summer when she was seventeen years old"), and its after-effects still linger; the basics are fairly clear fairly early on, but Honda waits until about midway in the novel before unveiling the whole ugly story. (It also proves significant in explaining why Reiko joined the police.)
       The Silent Dead starts with the most tired (but, sadly, still one of the most popular) of contemporary crime fiction openings: a scene of a few pages, describing an anonymous character committing a gruesome (though in this case quite justifiable, at least in part) crime many years earlier. The character is clearly being set up to be involved in the crimes Reiko and her colleagues will be trying to solve, and this 'beginnings'-story is background serving as explanation and rationale; Honda intersperses a few more scenes from this character's point of view later in the novel, too, but fortunately quickly loses interest and doesn't give them much of a platform as the investigation heats up. It's a relief, but begs the question why he bothered in the first place: there would have been other, arguably better ways of introducing this background and connection to the crimes (though of course it does offer the immediacy of the act being described from a perpetrator's point of view -- but in that case one wonders why Honda doesn't continue to take advantage of doing that later on as well).
       (Honda loses interest in several of his threads along the way, including Reiko's mother, whom he dispatches to the hospital halfway through the novel and, after making a big scene of it (and Reiko's guilt) then more or less forgets about it.)
       The investigation begins with the discovery of a body carefully wrapped in a blue tarp, a body with a cut throat and (postmortem) slit open belly. It's a bit mystifying why anyone would dispose of a body in this way -- on the one hand, wrapping it up expertly, on the other hand just leaving it in almost plain sight, where discovery is inevitable. It's Reiko who realizes that something went wrong with the disposing of the body, and that the package wasn't meant to be left where it was found. From there the leap to the possible disposal site isn't that difficult, and she convinces her higher-ups to search there for more possible victims. Only one is found, killed a month earlier, but the perpetrator is clearly the same one.
       Nothing seems to connect the victims. Both were hard-working, especially in the time leading up to their deaths, but otherwise the only thing that stands out is that they: "habitually went to an unknown destination on the evening of the second Sunday of the month". But finding out what they might have been up to proves very difficult -- no one in their lives seems to have a clue.
       The police finally begins to get a sense of what the Sunday night get-aways might have involved, especially when a whole lot more bodies are discovered -- all similarly packaged and disposed of (albeit at a different locale), their times-of-death each about a month apart. Obviously, something big and terrible -- and serial -- has been going on.
       What is most enjoyable about The Silent Dead is the police-procedural part of it -- and not so much the crime-investigation, which relies far too much on unlikely coincidences and some foolish go-it-alone actions by various participants -- but the police part. It is, like much of the book, a bit silly, even cartoonish in its exaggerations, but the police department Honda describes is an entertainingly buffoonish men's club, where the priority seems to be personal advantage.
       With so little crime in Japan, crime-fighting apparently isn't really a priority or necessity (these cops certainly can't seem to be bothered), and so when a murder case actually does come along the jockeying is to put oneself in the best possible light in the investigation -- with actually solving the crime something many clearly consider at best secondary. Reiko, who goes a lot by instinct and has some trouble following standard procedure, is obviously playing the game wrong (except that she's so good at what she does that she can get away with it).
       Japanese-style hierarchy -- especially that of seniority -- still determines almost everything, deference to superiors the key to advancement -- though of course matters are confused by some younger officers, such as Reiko, ranking higher than their older colleagues -- and it still matters who is looking out for your interests. But the backstabbing -- to the detriment of the investigation -- and joking around gives an impression of amateur hour unlike any seen except in comic crime fiction (and this is not meant to be that).
       The sexual harassment is particularly shocking, as Reiko is incessantly hit on -- not in American men's locker-room-talk style, but far more upfront (if also supposedly vaguely 'joking') manner. Yet Reiko is also disappointed that she can't quite get the attentions she wants from the one colleague who she has some interest in, as he always clams up on the subject when they go out drinking (and there is lots of hard after-hours drinking).
       In-your-face (or other body parts ...) sexual harassment seems to be endemic to the culture -- Reiko can't seem to move without being confronted by it:

On the train, with would-be gropers, she had notched a tally of seventeen broken fingers and two broken arms. At work, her record was more modest: six broken fingers and sero arms -- but she had kneed three guys in the balls and concussed a few by knocking their legs out from under them.
       (Obviously, the Tokyo police does not have a very good sexual harassment policy -- reporting it, or being (officially) disciplined for it doesn't seem to be one of the alternatives. On the others hand, the commuters who attacked Reiko don't seem to be making police brutality charges despite their broken limbs either: apparently everyone thinks this is somehow normal.)
       Beyond the unprofessional behavior of the police, it's interesting to see how they work. Few carry guns, while they enjoy long lunches on the job at a variety of appealing-sounding restaurants (the characters do sit down to eat a lot, and enjoy a lot of good food): no brown-bagging it for these cops. Perhaps most amusingly, the police apparently have very few cars at their disposal, and travel almost everywhere by train and taxi (!).
       This has obvious drawbacks, too, as readers are reminded when Reiko and a partner are underway yet again:
     The conversation tapered off. Discussing a case in any depth on the train was never easy. Since anyone could listen in, you had to lower your voice and pussyfoot around the subject.
       By the standards of most US and European crime fiction, it all sounds almost charmingly unprofessional. (Odd too is Reiko's habit of booking a hotel room when she's working a case: she still lives at home with mom and dad, but when she's on the case she prefers to rent a room closer to the station -- apparently (if hardly believably) not such a great extravagance.)
       As to the crime itself, it involves something called 'Strawberry Night' (which was also the (yes, English) title of the original Japanese edition of this novel, and is a beautiful example of Japanese (mis)appropriation of English, almost entirely pointless and inappropriate (though, at a stretch, sort of explicable)). Readers have been prepared -- by the nature of the crimes that have been revealed, as well as the glimpses of the one participant introduced right at the beginning -- for some of the gruesome nature of what is involved, but it turns out to be spectacularly (and not in a good way) more gruesome than imagined. And, also, again, fairly implausible (including that it hadn't been discovered previously).
       The procedural part is, in equal parts interesting and frustrating because of pretty much everyone insisting on going it on their own: officers constantly ditch their partners (though key to the successful capture of the perpetrators is one officer who tails another (for the wrong reasons, but ...)), and go against protocol by stealing witnesses or preventing information from being passed on to those it is intended for. (Honestly, this Homicide Division sounds less professional than the corrupt sheriff's offices from two-bit 1940's US dime novels ....)
       Reiko is disliked and undermined by several of her colleagues on the force, but at least Honda doesn't go for the most obvious explanations to who is (also) behind the crimes, and this final turn of events is -- if no less silly than much before -- satisfying enough.
       Honda actually touches on a lot of topics of interest, and addresses them in interesting ways, from Reiko's marital status as a (professional and family) issue to the various ways career-paths in the police are facilitated or otherwise unfold (some fast-tracked because of well-positioned relatives, others happily slogging along in smaller roles), or, for example, the general interaction among the various police officers, on and off the job. The one perpetrator introduced anonymously in the book's opening scene is also an intriguing tragic character -- and one of the ones Honda actually manages to carry through to the end, as he captures her tortured self impressively in the final scenes -- but what's missing here is a fuller portrait, the middle, as it were. Elsewhere, Honda just shows too little follow-through: admittedly, as the first in a series, there's room for these characters and their relationships to grow in later volumes, but it's disappointing that so much which is thrown, sometimes forcefully, into the fray (Reiko's possible inter-office romance; Reiko's relationship with her mother) is left so much up in the air.
       The Silent Dead is kind of a mess, and kind of silly, and the translation (and editing) makes for some bizarre reading ("What sort of time was that ?" is one police-question that was surely meant to be something like: 'When was that ?' or "At what time was that ?'), and even the crime being investigated isn't mined for nearly all that it could offer, but there's enough here that it consistently reads quite well and it is reasonably entertaining. Except for the way he teases readers about what happened to Reiko when she was seventeen -- drawing out the big reveal -- Honda does pace the narrative well, and even the far-fetched coincidences can somehow pass in this story. Not meant to be comic (for the most part), The Silent Dead is nevertheless frequently over-the-top -- but, disarmingly, not, like most contemporary crime thrillers, simply with regard to the crime being investigated, but rather with the most mundane and everyday things, especially the interoffice relationships. It's all decidedly odd, but somehow winning too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2016

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The Silent Dead: Reviews: Honda Tetsuya: Other books by Honda Tetsuya under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Honda Tetsuya (誉田哲也) was born in 1969.

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© 2016-2017 the complete review

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