The Mystery Fiction of SEICHŌ MATSUMOTO
by Michael E. Grost.

1. Ten to sen / Points and Lines


   Seichō Matsumoto’s Ten to sen (Points and Lines) (1957) is a railway timetable mystery straight out of the Freeman Wills Crofts school. It has such Crofts school features as police detective heroes, plenty of skilled detective work, and plot solutions partly based on the “breakdown of identity.” It is very absorbing reading.

   Matsumoto’s story unfolds against the background of a government scandal, involving bribery between businessmen and government officials. This is exactly the sort of situation featured in Akira Kurosawa’s film, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which makes an interesting cross reference to Matsumoto’s novel. Kurosawa’s treatment is very melodramatic and adventure oriented, whereas Matsumoto focuses on a straightforward realism, never losing focus on the detective work in the book.

   Matsumoto’s tales tend to focus on sinister murder conspiracies against the innocent. The conspiracies tend to be worked out in great detail, often involving faked alibis. There is a pleasing sense of mathematical symmetry in Matsumoto’s plots.

2. Suna no utsuwa / Inspector Imanishi Investigates

   Matsumoto’s later Suna no utsuwa (Vessel of Sand, translated as Inspector Imanishi Investigates) (1961) combines some traditions in his writing.


   The first and better half (Chapter 1 through the middle of Chapter 9) is a mystery story, focusing on solving an obscure murder. It involves such standard Matsumoto devices as an unidentified corpse, railway timetables, and a plot focusing on the two extremes of Japan, the North East and the South West regions of the Islands.

   Like Ten to sen, it builds up some interesting geographic patterns in its puzzle plot, patterns that involve the two extremes of the Islands, and which can be traced on a map with almost pure geometric precision and symmetry.

   The second half of the book is more of a pure thriller or suspense story, with only a little mystery left. It reminds one of some of the suspense short stories in Koe (The Voice). I like the second half of the book much less than the first, and in general do not enjoy Matsumoto’s thrillers anywhere as much as his mystery stories.

   The story also shows Matsumoto’s gift for misdirection. Several times Matsumoto makes it look as if his plot were going one way, only to pull off the opposite direction a few chapters later.

   Some of the reviews quoted on the back of Suna no utsuwa occasion some comment. It has become a truism of criticism that police procedural writers are trying to paint a picture of their society, and more than one reviewer duly states this about Matsumoto.

   I don’t agree. While Matsumoto is indeed realistic, it is hard to see that he is attempting to build up a systematic picture of Japanese society, à la Balzac. Instead, Matsumoto mainly seems concerned with creating mystery plots, together with exploring a few specific subjects that seem to interest him: policemen and their wives, train travel, men with hidden mistresses, bar hostesses, stage and film actors, newspaper reporters, life in South Western Japan, where Matsumoto grew up.

   The unnamed reviewer for The Milwaukee Journal compares Matsumoto to Anton Chekhov. This is very true. Matsumoto, like Chekhov, often creates a character by revealing some small aspect of their behavior or personality.

   This small piece somehow evokes a whole person, in ways that are mysterious, yet somehow very effective. There is also a low keyed intimacy of tone that recalls Chekhov, at once realistic and sensitive, and a gift for lyrical description of both scenery and everyday life.


3. “Kanto-ku no onna” / “The Woman Who Wrote Haiku”.

   The best short story in Koe (The Voice) is “Kanto-ku no onna” (“The Woman Who Wrote Haiku”) (1960). This is a genuine mystery story, not a suspense tale, with a first class plot. It also has the emotionally involving situations one finds in Matsumoto at his best.

   The puzzle plot is in the tradition of such earlier works as Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel (1878), and F. Tennyson Jesse’s “Lot’s Wife” (1929).

4. “The Cooperative Defendant”

   Matsumoto’s short story “The Cooperative Defendant” shows his interest in ambiguous situations. As is common in Matsumoto, his detective cannot decide whether his suspect is guilty or innocent. He oscillates between these two positions, based on reasoning about the evidence.

   Sometimes he recreates the crime one way in his mind. Then he gets new insight into the data, and reconstructs the crime in a different way. He usually has to really struggle mentally over this, taking a long period of time and much mental effort.

    “The Cooperative Defendant” also shows Matsumoto’s fondness for waste spaces: railroad yards, industrial lots, lonely road sides, country areas that are just being built up into cities, deserted beaches are all favorite Matsumoto locales. These are all areas that have some small aspect of human occupation, but which are typically nearly deserted, and almost in their natural state.

   There often seems to be water nearby, whether the sea, a famous waterfall, or just a small irrigation pond, as in this tale. Such American pulp writers as Norbert Davis and MacKinlay Kantor also were fascinated by such spaces, although one doubts either had any direct influence on Matsumoto.

   Matsumoto’s characters often have complete life histories, something one also finds in Hugh Pentecost. Their various professions can show unexpected links to the murder plot.

Editorial Comments:   This essay first appeared on Mike’s website, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection. It is reprinted here with his permission.

   If I am reading this biography of Matsumoto correctly, the stories that Mike has brought our attention to are only a small sliver of his crime fiction output. Quoting briefly:

    “A prolific author, the self-educated Matsumoto did not see his first book in print until he was in his forties. He wrote until his death in 1992, producing in four decades more than 450 works. Although Matsumoto also produced popular historical novels and respected works of nonfiction, it is his mystery and detective fiction that solidified his reputation as a writer at home and abroad.”

   Also, if you have it to hand, you might wish to read:

Apostolou, John. “A Yen for Murder: A Look at Japan’s Ichiban Mystery Writer, Seicho Matsumoto.” The Armchair Detective, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1987).