Oh, I totally get the appeal, and I think you might too: the case of the ordinary guy. The case where some nobody gets mixed up with something bigger and more exciting or dangerous than his usual routine and how he gets out of his depth and rises to the occasion (or not). After all, this is the basis for so many mysteries and thrillers.
But the thing is that it’s truly hard to make a novel exciting if your main character is dull by essence. Like, a banal civil servant working at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. I don’t know anything about the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, but apparently these guys have (or used to have, this being published in the 1970s) a whole lot of meetings and a whole lot of business trips, with speeches and applauses and dinners and geisha involved (this being Japan, I guess it’s to be expected). Also, a whole lot of brown-nosing to step up the corporate ladder, which is not only limited to Japan and to the 1970s, sadly.
Tsuneo Asai is a tough main character to love. It’s hard to empathize with someone who is so deeply into his professional career at the ministry of whatever. I’m sorry he doesn’t come from money, I’m sorry he hasn’t the right connections and the right diplomas, but I don’t really care. Still, he’s a bit obsessive, and he has put in the necessary hours, and has studied hard until he has achieved this expert reputation in his field. Well, good for him, but not good for the book. The main character is plodding, and at some point the pace of the novel threatens to be plodding too.
The point where we start to care is when it becomes obvious, early on, that his career is much more important to him than his wife. He’s a callous husband, a cold guy. He has married because he needs someone at home to take care of him and because of social conventions. But he sure doesn’t love his wife. So when he gets the news, while in business trip, that his wife died from her well-known heart weakness, he doesn’t bowl over with grief. If anything, he seems numb, cancels the rest of his trip after lots of apologizing to his boss, and goes through the motions of funeral arrangements.
Then things veer off his routine, because he can’t shake the idea that there’s no good reason why his wife died where she did, in a beauty shop in a neighborhood far from their home. The rest of the novel is his obsession to get to the truth, whatever the cost. Not even because he respects truth out of principles (he can lie his way to a promotion), but because he’s a relentless bureaucrat and bureaucrats don’t leave stones unturned. Of course, there’s more to it. Of course his wife was not just what he thought she was. Where will it stop? Everything is in his head, and not much in his heart, until he loses his bearings.
It is a very curious and interesting mystery. I could compare it, in opposite terms, to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Blank Wall. An ordinary housewife gets embroiled with something dark and dangerous, clearly out of her depth. Where Asai reacts with his cold logic, Lucia reacted with warm gut feelings. But both stories are outside of the genre conventions, and make me want to find more about their authors.