It all starts when near-penniless Kiriko makes the trip to Tokyo to enlist the help of lawyer Kinzo Otsuka. Kiriko is a hapless woman trying to scrape together a legal defense for her brother; he stands accused of a murder for which there seems a preponderance of solid evidence to send him to the gallows. Otsuka, on the other hand, is everything she’s not: well-heeled, surrounded by peers who appreciate his hard work, enjoying the affection of a woman who runs a classy French restaurant.
Kiriko presents herself in Otsuka’s office, minutes before he’s about to run off and enjoy a tryst with his ladyfriend, and he finds himself having to give her one piece of bad news after another. It’s not just that she can’t afford him, but that he’s also convinced she wouldn’t be getting significantly more robust legal representation by paying for a “name” lawyer. And no, he won’t take her case on pro bono. She tries to change his mind, and her single-mindedness instead leaves a impression with a journalist who’s been sniffing around for a story that might look good in the issues-and-controversy magazine he writes for. But even he has to admit the deck is stacked heavily against Kiriko’s brother—and the whole thing seems to end with a thud when the brother is convicted and dies in prison before his execution.
That ought to be the end of the story, but it isn’t. Part of the quiet genius of Pro Bono is how it starts from a point where there ought to be no story left to tell and creates a whole new one from it—one where Kiriko figures out, by degrees, how to level the playing field. Incensed by the way her brother was chewed up and spit out by the criminal justice system, Kiriko pens a blunt note about her brother’s death and sends it to Otsuka, who—as we have since learned—has the disadvantage of not being quite callous enough for his own good. His curiosity gets the better of him, and he steeps himself in the case files for the murder. And, as Kiriko predicted, he sees things that another lawyer might have missed (although, I admit, at this point in time they’re details that even Detective Conan would have found obvious).
Kiriko, we learn, has attempted to move on with her own life, or at least that’s how it seems at first. She lays down whiskey in a bar owned by none other than the brother of Otsuka’s main squeeze, and soon this connection becomes more than casual: she’s using it as a way to get that much closer to Otsuka’s ladyfriend, and to begin enacting a plan of revenge that is specifically designed to exploit the man’s moral weaknesses. How she does this takes up most of the second half of the book, and it involves her drawing on the few connections she’s forged—as, for instance, with Abe, the journalist—to conjure out of thin air power she was previously denied. Matsumoto seems to be saying that those who are not empowered within their own lives (women, especially) will find ways to take that power back, whether or not anyone else likes it. Kiriko finds a way to take it back, at Otsuka’s extreme expense, and boy does he ever not like it.
Seicho Matsumoto is one of the few Japanese authors of non-“literary” fiction to receive attention overseas, even if most of that attention only came after his death. His Inspector Imanishi Investigates was picked up by the Soho Crime imprint, and his fine mystery Points and Lines (and the story anthology The Voice) were both offered by Kodansha’s English-language imprint in the 1980s. Those few works are the tip of a massive iceberg, as he was hugely prolific over the course of his fifty-something-year career, with many of his works (including Pro Bono and Imanishi) served as the inspiration for major motion pictures. His writing is unadorned and brisk; his prose doesn’t get in the way, but instead stands back to let the story he’s telling take center stage. He does spend a little more time than is needed on case-file-style recitations of the crimes in question (it’s not as if the story is any the less credible if such things are condensed, if you ask me), but that’s par for the course in a story like this, I suppose. His biggest asset is a Hitchcock-esque ability to sketch out people turning, by degrees, to desperate behavior, and to make us believe in it the whole way down.
It’s heartening to see someone of Matsumoto’s stature in Japan getting that much more recognition in English, especially since the things he concerned himself with—like the inherent corruptibility and duplicity of human nature—aren’t exclusively Japanese by any measure. And if we can discover how that works for any number of girls with dragon tattoos, then discovering it with the likes of Matsumoto’s work as well ought to be a snap.
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