October 2013

James Orbesen


A Dog in the Water by Kazuhiro Kuichi

Manga rock star Kazuhiro Kiuchi is jumping into the world of prose. Like vaulting over the gutters separating comic panels, Kiuchi is moving forward with his career after creating the celebrated Be-Bop High School series. A Dog in Water is the acclaimed writer's second prose work but the first to appear in English. The novel, comprised of three interconnected sections told from various points of views, is a hardboiled detective tale set in the dirty alleys and neon lit clubs of Tokyo, brimming with drug addicts and yakuza.

Kiuchi starts with typical Chandler-esque language, the hallmark of noir:

The interior of the bar was too dark to be called dim. On the table were two forties of beer, three half-finished glasses, a dish with a small sampling of crackers and nuts, an ashtray piled high with cigarette butts, and nothing more. The place was less than two hundred square feet in size and was devoid of any other customers. The two girls who had been sitting on either side of me had long since vanished.

However, instead of the hung over and surly Marlowe, our detective is just that, a detective. His introduction is suitably nondescript as he remains unnamed for the entire book: "'Wh -- Who the hell are you?!' Her face was stiff. 'I'm a detective. Your parents are my clients. I came here to pick you up.'"

At first, it seems Kiuchi is intent on imitating familiar themes. For instance, there's the standard femme fatale. In this case, it is Junko, a nightclub waitress with a problem on her hands. Playing to expectations, our detective takes to her like a dog to a bone, all the time playing it coy.

She probably hadn't slept well since the attack. I decided to let her rest for a while longer. I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the kitchenette in the back office. I had no ulterior motive in wetting and combing out my bed-head. Nothing more than simple etiquette.

Nice try.

Again, this feels like something we've all read a dozen or so times before. Even though Kiuchi spices up the scenery, interspersing the tit-for-tat mannerisms of detective fiction with the window dressings of Japan: "'I might be an informant, but I'm no rat or stool pigeon used by the pigs,' the informant said as he stuffed his cheeks with mapo tofu over rice." "The informant's favorite things were talking and pretty young women. I finished my hot-and-sour ramen and lit a cigarette."

There seems precious little to differentiate this effort from hundreds of other titles.

Still, as A Dog in Water progresses, the unnamed detective begins to show a few cracks. He's prone to violence, lots of it. His work grows increasingly personal and he fails to heed the warnings of those around him. A former police contact is quite concerned about his tendencies, tendencies the detective, like the reader, is unaware of. He is also a stickler for etiquette and homely niceties. Here he is after bashing in a prep's face: "I followed, not bothering to remove my shoes. He was groaning, his face contorted in pain, his clenched teeth stained red with blood." Getting blood on the carpet is fine. Getting dirt, however, is something to possibly consider avoiding.

In this genre, the detectives are often the least interesting part of the story. They always seems to be relatively healthy, at least compared to those with whom they're in business. Marlowe may be hard-drinking, but it's those that he investigates (or romances) that get our blood up. Sherlock Holmes may be a master of deduction, but without Watson and Moriarty he's just a smartypants with poor people skills.

Kiuchi's detective walks a fine line between a do-gooder and just another common criminal. As the book progresses and the body count rises, it becomes clear that our hero-investigator is a bit too opaque. His job is to get to the bottom of things but the reader is tugged toward wanting to find out what's what with our protagonist.

At the start of the third section, after the detective has failed to save a kidnapped child, he visits his psychiatrist. By this point, Kiuchi has let slip that our hero is a failed family man with a foggy connection to the local police department. The episodic nature of A Dog in Water really plays well to the serialized format the author is known for. It isn't just one case he investigates, it is a sequence of cases that inevitably point back to him, building with intensity along the way, leaving the reader eagerly anticipating the next chapter much like a comic fan pacing the room until the next issue drops.

The detective sees his doctor, one that he originally met eight years ago. Shortly after their first meeting, the detective quit the force and became a private eye.

The doctor gave an enigmatic smile. "There's a drug called Propranolol hydrochloride. It was originally used to treat angina and high blood pressure, but another function is to disarticulate the hippocampus, where memories are stored, from the amygdala, which governs emotions. When administered to people who develop PTSD due to some terrible experience, the drug weakens the memory of the terrifying experience. Basically, it uncouples emotions from memory. Thereby erasing those specific memories."

Kiuchi has made the detective the real mystery. His memories are faulty, potential clues to unraveling the truth of what really happened eight years ago. It is this lack of reliability that subverts the genre conventions Kuchi seemed to be adhering to so closely. No wonder we never get the guy's name.

Between the semi-serialized storytelling and the rich detail the author presents, A Dog in Water is a unique take on what constitutes a detective novel. The ending builds over each case, each gunshot, and each body shot, culminating in an unexpected ending that feels earned as the lines between black and white turn a thick, hazy gray.

A Dog in Water by Kazuhiro Kuichi
ISBN: 978-1939130037
204 pages