Another cerebral, atmospheric thriller from the Australian author of the Italian Inspector Anders series, this one is set in modern Japan and features the reserved, dedicated Detective Inspector Hideo Aoki of the Tokyo police.
The book opens with an abrupt, devastating end to 17 months of hard, secretive work by Aoki and his team documenting the criminal corruption of a powerful politician. Word has come from above to drop the nearly completed case and disperse Aoki's team to other duties forthwith.
The detective prides himself on his stoicism. "Aoki was a pragmatist, like his mother. What came to him - in his police life, in his sparse life beyond that - he accepted. He took orders and worked hard and efficiently. Whatever way something finished, he went on to the next task, the next stage, but this time was different." His team had poured their lives into the investigation. One detective's marriage had broken up because of it.
Drinking too much, Aoki finds himself unwilling to go home to the gentle, cultured milieu of his wife and elderly father. Several years after the arranged, amenable marriage "it had occurred to Aoiki that his father had been choosing a daughter-in-law as much as a wife for his son." He struggles to conform, to take up his new, mundane assignment, but then the detective whose marriage had failed commits suicide.
Aoki breaks down at the supper table, and his wife, trying to help, leaks the case to a journalist. Aoki is suspended and his life begins to splinter under a series of devastating blows. In an effort to help, Inspector Watanabe, his superior, sends Aoki to a ryokan, a remote mountain retreat where men can shed the modern rat race and steep themselves in hot-spring baths and tranquil tradition, including Geisha services.
But Aoki arrives to find strange company. A banker and the government functionary who cuckolded him are dining together on the anniversary eve of the unfaithful wife's disappearance seven years earlier. It was a sensational case and its lack of closure stalled Watanabe's career. In addition an elderly Go master talks in riddles and seems to know a bit too much about Aoki and his troubles, and the exquisite proprietor (daughter of the missing woman) exerts an allure as powerful as she is remote.
A massive snowstorm traps all these people together without electricity (a minor inconvenience in this ancient inn) or phone and murder stalks the night. Secret rooms and ingenious medieval warning systems contribute to the atmosphere of ancient, enigmatic culture, behind-the-scenes menace and manipulation.
This is not a flawless book. Some plot elements are a stretch, starting with the convenient snowstorm and even more convenient assemblage of characters. But Browne's skill with character and atmosphere more than make up for this and readers will wish he would write faster so we can have more of Aoiki and another Inspector Anders too.