In Japan, Seicho Matsumoto is one of the most well-known crime fiction writers. Having produced 450 works (beginning at the age of 40) until his death in 1992, Matsumoto's work was known to be dark but also exposing the corruption not just in the underworld but also among police officials.
Having won many awards in Japan and one of the best selling and highest earning authors of the 1960's. Matsumoto wrote the story "Pro Bono" which was serialized in a women's publication from 1959-1960 and was made into a novel in 1961.
The drama was well-received that it's popularity led to a TV drama being made in 1965 and once again in 1977 and special dramas in 1983, 1991, 1997 and in 2003. And to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Seicho Matsumoto's birth, a special aired in television in 2010.
In America, "Pro Bono" will be released in America courtesy of Vertical, Inc. and featuring an English translation by Andrew Clare.
"Pro Bono" revolves around a young woman named Kiriko Yanagida who travels from Kyushu to Tokyo to meet with renown criminal defense lawyer Kinzo Otsuka.
Kiriko's brother Masao, a teacher, is a suspect of a robbery and murder of a 65-year-old woman. When he was arrested, her brother confessed but changed his mind after meeting with a public prosecutor.
Because of the technicality, it would be difficult to prove Masao's innocence, so she had to meet with the best criminal defense attorney in Tokyo.
But because she has no money to pay for the high attorney's fees, Kinzo feels its a waste of her time and money to travel to Tokyo to get him to work on this case. For one, he doesn't work via pro bono and second, all that is on his mind is being with his girlfriend Michiko Kono, a restaurant owner in the city.
Rejected by Otsuka, she tries to call and see if he would try to take her case but she is once again denied by his assistant Mr. Okamura because she doesn't have the money to afford a well-known attorney. And Kiriko fels that there is no hope for poor people looking for help.
While talking on the photo to Okamura, a young journalist named Keiichi Abe from "Comment" magazine was listening to her story and when he talked to her about her trying to get help from Otsuka, he then is drawn in by her story and starts to do his own research on the Masao Yanagida case.
It is true that Masao Yanagida knew the 65-year-old woman who was killed. She was a money lender that loaned Masao and what happened was that Masao Yanagida was entrusted to safekeep nearly 38,000 yen for a school excursion. Unfortunately, he lost the money and in order to make up that money he lost, he took out a high interest loan from the woman.
Unable to pay the debt in time, the woman harassed Yanagida for payment of the loan and one night, he went to visit the woman.
Yanagida said when he got to the woman's home, she was dead. Instead of calling authorities, he figured he could eliminate his debt by tearing out the promissory note of what he owed her, so he would not be in trouble for the debt. But because of the torn note and fingerprints, it led to police to Masao Yanagida.
Masao told police that he was innocent and repeated his story that he did not kill the woman, she was dead when he got there. But due to the evidence and for him trying to cover up his debt, the Criminal Investigation section maintained that Yanagida is the real killer.
Looking over the evidence, journalist Keiichi Abe believes that Masao Yanagida is innocent.
And because Kiriko was unable to get Otsuka to defend her brother, he was appointed an attorney by the court and waiting on appeals, he died in prison.
Kiriko wrote Otsuka a letter letting him know that her brother died in disgrace and branded a common thief and murderer.
Bothered by the letter, Otsuka then does his own research and realizes that her brother was probably innocent and he could have saved her, but she didn't have the money to pay. But if he took the job via pro bono, he probably could have had him acquitted.
But a few years later, when someone very close to Otsuka is accused for a crime that she did not commit, the one person can easily have her acquitted for the murder, happens to be the person that he turned down a few years ago, Kiriko Yanagida.
"Pro Bono" is a fascinating novel. We are told a story from three different individuals, Kiriko Yanagida, the sister of a young man who is falsely accused for murder and jilted by the lawyer who can help him. We have renown criminal defense lawyer Kinzo Otsuka, who is very well-known, living the good life and having an affair with a restaurant owner named Michiko Kono. And we have a young magazine journalist named Keiichi Abe, a man who wants to help prove Masao Yanagida's innocence but also wanting to help Kiriko.
The first half of the story deals with Kiriko trying to get help from Otsuka, while Keiichi Abe investigates what took place on the tragic night that Masao Yanagida was accused of murder. The second half deals with Otsuka now looking into the murder case out of guilt because Masao Yanagida has died in prison. And the third part of the story deals with another murder, but deals with one of the most calculating form of revenge I have ever read in a novel.
What makes Seicho Matsumoto's "Pro Bono" so fascinating is that he goes into the detail of the case. It's like reading an actual case file from detectives and using all information possible to figure out innocence or one being guilty. The reader gets to see these files laid out by Matsumoto throughout the novel, including letters of correspondence between Kiriko and Otsuka.
And while there are a lot of technical situations about the crime featured in the book that would make most readers interested in crime cases (as well as those who want to be law students or detectives), The first 75% of the book is slowly paced but once you get to the final 25% of the book, the story goes on a tangent which surprised me at first, because it focused on Kiriko and other characters, getting away from both Otsuke and Abe.
But you realize that Seicho Matsumoto was building up the story for something really magnificent and shocking. And let's just say that the final chapters of "Pro Bono" were shocking and something I didn't see coming at all.
Overall, "Pro Bono" is a fantastic novel. It may have been written back in 1959-1960 but by no means does the storyline's era impedes one's enjoyment of this novel. In fact, if I didn't know this was set in the 1960's, one can think this was written during any decade. The setting is less important than the characters. It's the characters and the situations that really get interesting and Seicho Matsumo slowly gets people into the whole criminal case, but then strays away from it, making you question why he leaves from the primary case involving her brother, until you realize what he is actually setting up for the primary characters.
I also have to give credit to Andrew Clare for the translation of this novel. Especially with all the technical details involved, I'm quite appreciative of Clare and also Vertical, Inc. in bringing a Seicho Matsumoto novel to the United States. And I can only hope that more of his work is translated and released stateside.
A shocking, well-written and overall, a wonderful crime novel, Seicho Matsumoto's "Pro Bono" is highly recommended!