The squeamish yet diligent Detective Hiroshi Shimizu returns in Shitamachi Scam, the sixth instalment of Tokyo-based Michael Pronko’s crime novel series. In 2022, Azabu Getaway transported readers to the cosmopolitan Azabu district, but this time the action takes place in an older, more traditional Shitamachi neighbourhood.
An unscrupulous gang is targeting the elderly residents of the area, and when a 70-year-old lady is killed in what appears to be a mugging, Detective Ishii, who has been running a task force on crimes against women, asks Detective Hiroshi to assist with the investigation.
There’s more to the gang’s activities than just bag snatching. Ishii was investigating financial scams targeting the elderly – particularly women. People have been tricked into transferring large sums of money and Ishii has been running workshops helping them protect themselves agains the scammers. Now somebody has been killed, and Hiroshi’s expertise as a forensic detective and fraud expert makes him a perfect fit for the case.
To complicate matters further a reclusive student is discovered dead in his room, presumably from drug-induced heart failure. On the night of his murder, a scantily dressed woman entered his room. Could she have killed the man? The student’s actions were not entirely above board. The police discover that he’d been secretly filming people – but why, and for whom? Is it connected to the scams?
As Hiroshi and the team dig deeper, they uncover a far greater criminal network hell-bent on changing the Tokyo city landscape whatever the human cost. In contrast to bureaucracy, or perhaps because of it, corruption flourishes. Some property developers are finding more creative and illegal ways to make money – via extortion and coercion, effectively running the city. Pronko leads us on a wild goose chase, ranging from the Silver Centre, an elderly community home, to dubious skateboarders. But don’t worry, it all comes together in the end.
Despite its multiple threads, Shitamachi Scam is a slow-moving and steady-paced crime novel. However, its characters are its strength – from Takamatsu, the old-school detective who, much to Hiroshi’s chagrin, takes great pleasure in talking about the gory details of crime scenes and corpses, to Sakaguchi, the chief of homicide and a former sumo wrestler. Pronko’s characters are colourful, often with endearing qualities.
Hiroshi is about to make an important career decision that will have an impact on his relationship with his girlfriend, Ayana. The couple is expecting a child, and Hiroshi’s preoccupation with his job and the dangers it entails are straining their relationship. Hiroshi realises he needs to work harder on their relationship when Ayana’s mother comes to visit and Ayana leaves with her. A tempting offer from his uncle could be the solution.
The addition of Ishii to the series provides a welcome female perspective and balance to the testosterone-driven team. Hopefully, she will be a good match for the two former sumo wrestlers and the rugby player – Sugamo, Sakaguchi, and Osaki. Not to mention Takamatsu, who prefers unconventional, sometimes borderline illegal, methods of policing.
The tradition of respecting one’s elders is rapidly disappearing in the Japan depicted here. Another major issue in Japanese society seems to be the conflict between progress and development and the preservation of traditional ways of life. A still-existing tradition is the ritual of eating, with a meal serving as a time for reflection. The team often eat together to discuss the case. These brief culinary pauses add a nice touch to the more serious storyline.
Fans of crime fiction set in Japan will once again appreciate Michael Pronko’s exploration of Tokyo, and crime readers in general might find a new favourite cast of characters.
Raked Gravel Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars