Shinjuku Shark is the first novel in the bestselling hardboiled detective series in Japan, focusing on Detective Samejima, who the toughest cop in Shinjuku, the meanest part of Tokyo, or at least so we are to believe.
In this story, we meet Samejima, and we learn of his relationship with his girlfriend, Sho. We also get to see his rather unique handling of a number of things, such as his dealings with the yakuza, whom the other police negotiate with so neither side loses too much face (Samejima, on the other hand, beats them up and treats them like losers). We are also introduced to a number of characters who will likely recur through the series, such as Fujimaka, the police commissioner, Momoi, the captain of Samejima's department, Yuba, the firearms specialist who brings American knowledge of guns to the Japanese, Sho, Samejima's girlfriend, and Kodo and Shinjo, two erstwhile police officers more concerned with promotions than justice.
The story line is fairly simple. There is a person on the loose in Shinjuku, who is shooting police officers, and the entire police force is wrapped up in catching him. Except Samejima, who is far more interested in tracking down an old foe, Kizu, who illegally manufactures guns for the yakuza. It becomes obvious early in the story that there is some involvement of Kizu in the killings, because the officers are shot, which is exceptionally uncommon in Japan, and he manufactures illegal weapons. Meanwhile, a wannabe detective perpetually involves himself in the crimes as an informant. As the story progresses, it heads towards a final confrontation between Samejima, Kizu, the mysterious informant who gives his name as "Ed", and the shooter. Only at the end do we know which, if any, of these people are the same.
Several things bothered me about this story. First, the killer is repeatedly described as a serial killer, which is inaccurate (it would be more accurate to say that he is a spree killer). This inaccuracy is merely annoying, but it perpetuates some silly ideas, ones that I would like to see go away. (Serial killers only very rarely do it BECAUSE they hate someone or some people; they more often do it to ACHIEVE a feeling rather
than as a RESULT of a feeling. This difference is critical in catching the perpetrator.)
In addition, the character development could be described as either anemic (which is generous) or non-existent (which is harsh) or predictable (which is ugly). This is particularly egregious, as it is obvious early on that this is intended to be part of an ongoing series, with all of the characters already mentioned (or, at least, those that survive) returning for the next books. Indeed, you can feel that Arimasa has plotted out several books, and that there will be events from this book that become important later.
The interaction between Kizu and Samejima is also bizarre. If Kizu is, as described, meticulous and detail-oriented, he would merely have killed Samejima and kept the location of his workshop secret. Instead, he decides to torture him. If this is, as is intimated, a result of what happened to Kizu in prison because of Samejima's having previously arrested him, then it would make sense. But some kind of greater character development in that arena would have been a nice thing to see.
There are perhaps two mysteries about this book. First, an internal mystery. How does Samejima harass, constantly, gangs in the most dangerous part of Tokyo and NOT end up dead somehow? It is widely known that he travels alone, that he is not popular with other police, and that he is unruly. How has no one just shot him yet? Second, an external mystery. I understand why this book and the series are popular (they are simple, fast-paced, and written like a movie screenplay). What I DON'T understand is why critics would like this series. After all, this book won the Eiji Yoshikawa Award for fiction and the Naoki Prize. So, someone must think that it is good. Why?
If you enjoy hardboiled mysteries, and you are curious what a Japanese one would be like, pick this up. If you enjoy Japanese pop fiction, and are curious what a Japanese hardboiled mystery would be like, pick this up. If you like both, why haven't you read this yet? If you aren't a huge fan of at least one of these genres, you should probably pass on this, because there are better things out there (the Aurelio Zen series immediately leaps to mind).