By strange serendipity, the last two books I read both start out with a supposed railway accident, i.e. a mangled body on a railway line, but they then set off in diametrically opposed directions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them both.
Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder (1923)
I had read some of Freeman Wills Crofts’ crime stories, but I don’t think I’ve read any of his Inspector French novels reissued by the British Library Crime Classics. So when I found this little-known standalone crime novel in my local library, and discovered that it was partly set in South Africa, I wanted to give it a whirl.
The body of salesman Albert Smith is found mutilated in a railway tunnel near Groote Park in an imaginary South African town of Middeldorp about 1000 miles away from Cape Town. An open-and-shut case of an accident as he was crossing the railway line? But it turns out that he was not the most likeable of people, and what was he doing meeting someone late at night in a potting shed in the botanical gardens? This first part of the novel is a systematic police procedural, where we follow doggedly determined Inspector Vandam’s enquiries, assist in all of his interviews, and pretty much have access to all of his logical reasoning. However, the person who is finally put on trial, Stewart Crawley, a manager in the same company that Smith worked for, is not found guilty in the end, although his engagement to the boss’s daughter comes to an end because of the whole affair.
The second part of the book takes place in Scotland and after a gap of two years, which is somewhat unusual. Stewart Crawley has moved there in an attempt to rebuild his life. It’s not so much that his past comes haunting him, but that he actively seeks it, as he accidentally reunites with his former fiancee. This part of the novel is a bit more action-based, with some ‘against the clock’ races and personal peril, while the criminal is rather easy to spot (as is the way in which he planned the crime).
Probably not the best book by this author (although I haven’t read enough to compare), but it was a fun, quick read, a good palate cleanser perhaps between two rather more challenging reads (Bohumil Hrabal and David Peace), which both involved spending quite a claustrophobic amount of time in someone else’s head.
David Peace: Tokyo Redux (2021)
This one too starts with a mutilated body on a railway line, except the victim is not an average little salesman, but Shimoyama, the Head of the National Railways of Japan, who went missing for a day or two in July 1949 before being found dead. This was a real case, and a notorious one in Japan. It was never resolved and has led to much ink being shed, as well as many political conspiracy theories arising, the equivalent of the JFK assassination in the US, or the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Italy.
This is the last volume in the rather loosely connected Tokyo trilogy by David Peace, and it took him far longer to write than the previous two, because there was so much material to sift through. The two detectives in his previous volumes, Minami from Tokyo Year Zero, and the ‘occult detective’ in Occupied City, make a reappearance in this book as well, and all three books are based on real cases that profoundly marked post-war Japanese society. In Tokyo Redux, the detective is an American Harry Sweeney from the occupying forces, so he has a bit of an outsider perspective – but he fails to resolve the case, and we only get an idea of what might have happened and who was to blame after reading Part Two (which takes place in 1964 as the city prepares for the Olympics, with a Japanese PI as the main character) and Part Three (1988/89, as Emperor Hirohito lies dying, featuring retired American scholar and translator Donald Reichenbach – hard not to associate him with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, probably an amalgamation of the two).
David Peace’s ambitions are huge, he wants to portray an entire society at a time of tumultuous change, but also ask general questions about political influence and interference. What is the cost or value of an individual life against the needs (or vices) of an entire society? His style is quite idiosyncratic, and has been compared to James Ellroy, although the latter is more telegrammatic, while Peace is more rhythmically hypnotic. It all made sense to me when I heard him read his own work at the Quais du Polar in Lyon. He is writing something that resembles a prose poem, he is like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce on meth with their streams of consciousness technique. He is almost certainly a very Marmite type of author, and, even though I love him overall, even I can get a little fatigued by his style if I read too much of it in one day. At other times, however, I cannot get enough of it and simply allow myself to float away on the sounds. He uses a lot of onomapoeia, just like the Japanese (a culture he has immersed himself in over decades, and that he truly loves and understands, although he is modest about his reading skills). He doesn’t use speech marks, which I usually find pretentious and irritating (as well as confusing).
Here is the disenchanted Harry Sweeney meditating about life and death, questioning his purpose as a policeman in someone else’s country, on the banks of the Sumida River:
A yellow train was pulling out of the station, the yellow train crossing an iron bridge. The bridge across the river, a bridge to the other side. Going east, going north. Out of the city, away from the city. Men disappearing, men vanishing. In the city, from the city. On its streets, in its stations. Their names and their lives. Disappearing, vanishing. Starting afresh, starting again. A new name, a new life. A different name, a different life. Never going home, never coming back. The train disappearing, the train vanishing.
Harry Sweeney looked away from the bridge, stared back down at the river… so still and so black, so soft and so warm. Inviting and welcoming, tempting, so tempting. No more names and no more lives. Memories or visions, insects or specters. So tempting, very tempting. An end to it all, an end to it all. The pattern of the crime precedes the crime.
You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.