Thanks to Kevin for a copy of Arimasa Osawa's The Poison Ape (1991, English translation 2008), part of a series focusing on a police detective nicknamed the Shinjuku Shark. The book gets off to a slow start, seeming like numerous other hard-boiled outings, but it slowly builds into something more substantial. The detective Samejima (he's the Shark) gets caught between a Taiwanese detective visiting Japan for mysterious reasons, an extremely efficient hitman (the Poison Ape) and a local detective with unclear reasons for running a stakeout. Running alongside is a secondary plot about a bar hostess who gets pulled into the hitman's plan.
Stated like this it sounds cliched and in fact it stays pretty close to genre boundaries but Osawa manages to keep the story not entirely predictable and to make the "unstoppable hitman" seem almost like a real person. He uses Shinjuku for local color and while I have no idea how accurate this or his descriptions of Japanese crime actually are, they don't seem fanciful. (OK, that's not entirely true: I've read Kaplan & Dubro's amazing Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld.) The portrayal of an odd friendship between the Japanese and Taiwanese detectives as well as the hostess' unthinking alienation work on dynamics of race that remind me of some Miike films such as City of Lost Souls.
But what's interesting in another way is how mysteries have become so conventional and clearly defined that the main changes are settings and characters. For the traditional amateur detective form we can get them in almost every historical era and with detectives of assorted genders, races, classes, handicaps, eccentricities, etc. For The Poison Ape I wonder whether the stark, undecorated, declarative sentence style comes from genre expectations, from the original Japanese or from the translation. Not that I necessarily want a hard-boiled novel that reads like late Henry James (well actually I kinda do) but there seem to be unnecessary limits to the stories these writers are going to tell and how they're going to tell them. That's why I've always had reservations about James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss or the more thriller-ish Stephen Hunter. They tend to pile grotesqueries on top of violence until it seems more like boyish grossouts rather than storytelling, let alone Art.
I am being a bit unfair - innovation isn't usually very important and major work can be done with nearly obsessive attention to conventional demands and genre limits. Just check countless examples from Shakespeare to Dickens to Ed Brubaker. But with too many mystery and crime writers I get the feeling that they're too aware of the conventions and are writing to that, if indeed they're even capable of anything else. Not exactly a problem--we'll always need entertainment of some sort--but then again I personally like even my mindless entertainment to be a bit unusual.