Some people visit the Big Soosh for sightseeing and shopping, others to drink, dine, and do Odaiba or Disneyland, or simply to see what a city of fourteen million people smells, sounds, and feels like. I went to Tokyo to meet a private investigator.
It’s a long story, suffice to say that a mystery novel I’d been working on needed polishing and I had questions only a professional sleuth could answer.
So, last week I packed an overnight bag with a notebook, 6B pencils, a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Trouble Is My Business, and my Adidas Cloudfoam 2.0s for city gumshoeing, and caught the Hikari 555 to Shinagawa Station.
As the bullet train whisked me through the prefectures of Osaka, Aichi and Shizuoka, I penned my questions for the Tokyo PI:
As Mount Fuji slipped by under a cloak of late spring snow, I wondered if Tokyo still carried a whiff of what the great detective mystery writer, Seicho Matsumoto, had infused his seminal Tokyo Express (aka Points and Lines) with? The answer was likely no—but I remained hopeful. Every capital has its grimey alleys lined with seedy bars, its night crawlers, thugs, swindlers, hookers and hitmen. I was searching for atmosphere.
My doc had advised me to take it easy on the turps, but how is that possible in a city of 30,000 bars (Japan Airlines website)? Besides, what’s noir without a bar?
On my office wall in Himeji hangs a drawing of a mask-wearing geisha playing an electric guitar rendered artistically as a map of the Tokyo subway system. Thanks to long afternoons pondering this, the colour-coded ‘points and lines’ all made sense as I ducked, dived, and weaved through a warren of tunnels dividing the platforms and stations of the world’s most extensive underground transport system. I even found myself humming Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic.
At Harajuku, a man boarded with a sprig of plum blossoms in his mouth and lay across three seats staring dreamily at me. At Shinjuku, a very tall shaved-headed teenager in faux fur crowded me against an elderly woman sucking a lozenge extremely loud and incredibly close.
At Kita-Shinjuku, I lost the furball and lolly-sucker and gumshoed my way down Okubo-dori Street, a bustling strip crowded with Korean, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, strip clubs, bars and ethnic grocery stores. The air was thick and oily with odours of gee, garlic, cheap deodoriser and bleach. A guy with double black eyes glided past on his two-wheeler. I counted five different languages screamed, spoken, or breathed by the time I reached an old block of apartments with a rusted name plaque which ended in the word ‘Heights’. Whomever had built it had high hopes and a low budget. I was early, so I messaged the PI and in a few moments received his reply: ‘I’m ready’.
The elevator trundled its way to the fifth floor, delivering me to a zig-zagged hallway lined with pale green doors. Outside #501, I pressed the buzzer and looked up at the camera.
A man opened the door, and to this day I still have difficulty describing him. He looked normal—so nondescript in height, dress, and appearance that you wouldn’t have noticed him on a crowded street. The room he ushered me into contained a desk, four chairs, a pc, and a kitchenette. That’s all I remember. In fact, the only proof that I was ever there are the scribbled answers to my questions ...
Who makes better investigators—men or women?
Men tend to handle gadgets and technology better; women are more intuitive and skilful in consulting, especially on cheating spouse cases.
What essential skills does a PI need?
The ability to read body language, driving skills, and marketing knowhow (it’s a competitive industry).
What is the popular image of PIs in Japan?
Shadowy, but somewhat cool …
Can a private investigator lose their registration?
Yes. If multiple warnings from the police are ignored. Such situations can arise if complaints are filed by suspects who feel they are being harassed.
How would you describe your clients?
Varied, all types, from companies investigating their employees, to suspicious spouses, and foreigners seeking missing family across Japan.
What percentage are cheating spouse cases?
Eighty percent, divided roughly fifty-fifty between men and women.
Is real life stranger than fiction?
(Laughs) Yes. Example: a missing persons case involving a family of squabbling siblings, one of whom had kidnapped their demented father and was trying to get him to sign a re-drafted will.
Hollywood script writers have resources that Japanese PIs don’t to research the techniques and tactics of real-life spies and detectives. ‘We can learn a lot from watching movies like The French Connection.’
That was food for thought.
On the way back to the station I searched for a bar on Okubo-dori Street, but there were none; at least, none without half-naked women and ten-thousand yen entry fees. So I returned to my hotel, drank a few beers, and wrote up my notes.
That night, I took the Yamanote line across the city to join an acquaintance who works in the movie industry and her comrades for dinner and drinks at a yaki-tori joint in a Yoyogi alley. Then we adjourned to a lounge bar in Daikanyama to drink gin with sprigs of rosemary and smoke Dominican cigars.
While the eight-piece latin band dished up the mambo, and the bow-tied waiters floated between tables, I wondered how many cheating spouses might be seated about me, how many company embezzlers were splurging on Merlot and Montecristos, how many runaway bicultural kids, or kidnapped demented pensioners, might be hiding in the smoky depths. I searched for faceless men and women in nondescript attire who might be watching them—but not watching.
I found none. So I ordered another gin, concluding that while life might be stranger than fiction, writing about it keeps it real.
Previous dispatch, Sounds of Home, here.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!