On one level, All She Was Worth is a traditional type of detective novel. A young woman, Shoko Sekine, goes missing. Her distraught fiancé contacts his uncle, Shunsuke Honma, a police detective on long-term sick leave because of a knee injury, to ask him to find her. Honma lives in an apartment block with his ten-year old son Makoto. We soon learn that Honma’s wife, Chizuko, died a few years previously in a car accident. Their son is looked after by Isaka, a neighbour who enjoys cooking and keeping house, so makes his living childminding and looking after apartments in the block (his wife is the family’s main earner).
Honma is therefore able to accept the task of searching for Shoko, and it is this search that forms the main part of this excellent book. Honma begins by visiting the woman’s last employer, and it isn’t long before inconsistencies and surprises appear. Soon, he begins to suspect he may not be looking for one lost person but two, and two lives begin to be uncovered in parallel – or do they?
Honma has to travel from the Tokyo suburb where he lives to Osaka and other towns and districts as he refuses to give up on his seemingly hopeless assignment, each clue failing to support his intangible hypothesis yet leading him on into yet further insubstantial directions. Honma is a great character, somewhat dour and slightly insecure about his long absence from work and at sea without his wife, to whom he was devoted in a lovely quiet, domestic way (he cannot bear to cut the spare buttons out of the lining of his new clothes because it is something she always did, keeping the buttons in her sewing box). He loves his son, yet cannot find words to express his feelings. I loved the little male family that is gradually created at Honma’s home as the book continues, first by the addition of Isaka, then a colleague from the police department, then a young man who Honma meets on his search, who in their different ways contribute to Honma's mission. These relationships are portrayed touchingly yet unsentimentally, and give the book a real warmth, especially when the little boy is cruelly upset and all the men rally round him in their different ways.
But the novel is very far from being a ‘cosy’. First published in 1992 and translated into English (actually American English, by a conglomerate according to the publisher, by Alfred Birnbaum according to Wikipedia) in 1996, it is strongly critical social comment of the personal and family devastation caused by the uncontrolled rise in consumer spending and credit of the 1960s, when regulations in Japan were relaxed. For me, this book ticks all the boxes – I learned a lot about attitudes and the ways of life of people in Japan, and about the country, as well as thoroughly enjoying the strong if tragic plot, the social commentary (occasionally digressive but I didn't mind), and the combination of toughness and humanity that characterise the best crime novels. The title is also apt, as becomes apparent.
I first read about this author (pictured) in newbooks magazine, and was encouraged to try her by Kathy, a commenter at this blog. I am very glad I did, and will soon be reading another of the very talented Miyuki Miyabe’s crime novels (sadly, not many of them have been translated into English).