DURING the Second World War, Japanese government censors banned detective novels, declaring they were unpatriotic, decadent and counter-productive to the war effort. So it is not surprising that Japan's most successful thriller writer, Seicho Matsumoto, was a late starter. Before him, the best-known detective-story author had been Edogawa Ranpo, who paid homage to his master Edgar Allan Poe by adopting this Japanised form of the name as a pseudonym.
Matsumoto was born into a poor working-class family in the Kokura district of Fukuoka, Kyushu, in 1909, and received only a primary school education. He had to go to work at an early age as a labourer. But a knowledge of printing got him a job at the Asahi Shimbun, where he also worked as a journalist and editor.
When he was 40, Matsumoto began writing, and in 1952 he won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his autobiographical Aru Kokura nikki-den ('Story of the Kokura Journal'). Me no kabe ('Wall of Eyes') appeared in 1957. His first full-length detective fiction, Ten to sen ('Points and Lines'), after running as a newspaper serial from 1957 to 1958, was a big hit as a book in 1958, selling over a million and a quarter copies. In 1961, Suna do utsuwa ('Vessel of Sand', 1961, published in English as Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 1989) sold four and a half million copies and became a movie box-office hit.
Matsumoto pushed the art of the detective story in Japan to new dimensions. He is credited with renovating the genre by introducing the 'social detective story' describing in precise detail police procedurals and depicting Japanese society with unprecedented realism - though it is a realism that to Western eyes accustomed to the masterpieces of Raymond Chandler seems very mild.
Matsumoto's Inspector Imanishi is often compared to Simenon's Maigret. He is a typical Simenon anti-hero, but otherwise the comparison does not hold up. Though he is indeed in the great line of Martin Beck and Van der Valk, he most resembles PD James's Adam Dalgliesh. Imanishi is a modest family man, with an unobtrusive and devoted wife. He likes gardening, chain-smokes Peace cigarettes, cultivates bonsai and above all writes haiku. The deceptively simple-looking art and craft of haiku composition keeps appearing in Matsumoto's work. In a short story, 'Kanto-ku no onna' (1960, appearing as 'The Woman Who Wrote Haiku' in his collection The Voice, 1989), a haiku poet's death is analysed by the editorial committee of a magazine where her best poems appear in the place of honour on the first page. When the mystery is solved, the editor writes, not her obituary, but her poetic eulogy. In a land where almost everyone writes haiku, this is a popular theme.
Almost everyone in Japan is also obsessed by her fine, efficient railway system, which forms a central motif in some of Matsumoto's best stories. He employed researchers to check every last detail of railway lore, for there was a huge public of rail maniacs scouring his works for possible slips - timetable improbabilities, wrong lines, technical rolling-stock details, local geography, dialects and trades. At the end of Ten to sen, readers are told that the times of trains come from a 1957 timetable.
But Matsumoto was a very complex and curiously learned man. He was not just a crime writer. He wrote popular speculative works on ancient and contemporary history. The latter are often about government, police and financial scandals, like Nihon no shiro ('Empty Castle', 1978), dishing the dirt about the bankruptcy of the Ataka Trading Company, and Meiso ohizu ('A Confused Map', serialised 1982-83), where he lays bare all the inner workings of Japanese politics by depicting the secret activities of the influential male secretaries of Diet members. It was common knowledge that Matsumoto had inside information. Showashi hakkutsu ('New Researches into the History of the Showa Era', serialised 1964-71) delves into some of the mysterious events in the late Emperor's reign.
He also covered a wide range of international themes: Beiruto joho ('Beirut Information', 1976) and Shiro to kuro no kakumei ('Revolution in Black and White', 1979), which is a searching analysis of the revolution in Iran. Matsumoto also campaigned against the Vietnam War: he was a strongly left- wing socialist who had deep concerns for the less fortunate of his fellow human beings.
In other scrupulously researched, well-written works like Kodaishi-gi ('New Questions Concerning the Ancient Past', serialised 1966-67) he advanced original views on ancient Asian history and archaeology. In Genjin ('Genbo the Magician', serialised 1977-80), he paints a convincing portrait of the ambitious eighth- century monk Genbo. All these serials sold in their millions in book-form, but it was not until the 1970s that Matsumoto's work began to be widely translated, mainly into Chinese, Korean and Russian. French translations of Suna no utsuwa and Ten to sen appeared in 1987 and 1989.
Reading these works in English is rather hard-going, even though (or perhaps because) the drastically condensed Inspector Imanishi Investigates is re-edited, re-arranged and sharply condensed from the 766 pages of the original paperback to 300 large-print pages of American English. The fiction serial tradition in Japan is largely to blame, because it forces authors to overwrite. So plots are over-contrived, characters too many and too wooden; too many coincidences and rigid plot-structure leave no room for inspired shock endings or psychological subtlety, while the jog-trot dialogue is often just desultory Japanese-style conversation saying nothing and leading nowhere.
In the autumn of 1987, we had the pleasure of welcoming this marvellous human being to the first Festival du Roman Policier in Grenoble. He was easily the most popular of all the famous participants. He was at pains to make clear that he was not a haado-boirudo (hard-boiled) writer, but more in the line of Chesterton or Gaston Leroux. But the great surprise came when he declared his passionate admiration of an unjustly forgotten crime writer, Freeman Wills Crofts, who also wrote about railways. Matsumoto belonged to that distinguished tribe of self-taught writers like George Gissing, Jack London and Louis L'Amour. His collected works from the Bungei Shunju Publishing Co already amount to over 50 volumes. He is a Japanese immortal.