Sunday, August 30, 2020

"The Salary Man's Wife"

Do you miss your American food? How about a hotto doggu?” 
"'No thanks, I don’t eat meat,' I said, unwrapping the sweet tofu and rice snack. 
"'It’s no good, not healthy. In Japan, we believe in eating thirty different foods every single day! Meat, fish, rice, pickles, soy beans—'"
– The Salaryman's Wife, Kindle Locations 5614-5617). 
The Salaryman's Wife
Published 1997
In  Sujata Massy's mystery novel The Salaryman's Wife, the amateur detective who solves the case is a Japanese-American woman living in Tokyo. Rei Shimura is an English teacher who would like to become an antique dealer. She works in a Japanese home-appliance manufacturing company where, among the humorous interchanges in the novel is an ongoing discussion about whether the company's ads for an espresso maker should call it "caffe latte" or use Japanese pronunciation "caffe ratte."

The novel is suspenseful and fun to read, with lots of local color in a variety of Tokyo settings, and in a mountain guest house with traditional Japanese rooms, baths, meals, and hosts. And of course a murder. I especially enjoyed the way that food was used to reinforce cultural identity of a number of characters, especially Rei.

Here's Rei's first dinner and breakfast at the rural inn:
"My dinner tray looked very promising. Buck-wheat noodles swam in broth that smelled deliciously of garlic and ginger. Small porcelain plates were filled with a jewel like assortment of sashimi, as well as sweet black beans, sesame-flecked spinach, lotus root, and other artistically arranged vegetables. The only foods that made me nervous were tiny dried sardines meant to be eaten whole and paper-thin slices of raw meat I suspected was horse, a regional specialty." (Kindle Locations 221-225).
"It was difficult to enjoy breakfast, even though it was straight out of my Zen vegetarian dreams: zni, a special New Year’s vegetable broth, plus steaming rice and saucers filled with colorful pickled vegetables. On the side was mochi, a glutinous rice cake." (Kindle Locations 537-539). 
Rei has an aunt Norie and cousin Tsutomu "Tom" Shimura on the Japanese side of her family, whose help she enlists in her amateur detecting. Her aunt offers her a meal when she visits their home:
"For lunch, Aunt Norie served scallops au gratin, a cucumber salad, sake-simmered lotus root, spinach-sesame rolls, and pickled eggplant left over from New Year’s. She said, 'Please tell your mother how much we enjoy that vinegar she sent for my birthday! It’s on the salad. But I don’t understand what it is, exactly.' 
"'Balsamic,' I guessed. And too much of it. I had to keep from puckering my mouth as I ate. 
"'I mean to go on a natto diet, but Oksan keeps stuffing me with high-cholesterol meals,' Tom said, not looking like he minded a bit. 'You eat natto? I’m glad I don’t have to work with you.' I made a face at him. The smell of fermented soybeans was just as bad as its stringy texture, although millions swore it was a font of good health." (Kindle Locations 1724-1731). 
Finally, I enjoyed the following description of ceremonial serving of special tea that an antique dealer offers Rei. This exchange illustrates how she has absorbed many things about how to be polite as a Japanese woman, as well as about appreciating Japanese antiques, her hoped-for metier:
"Mr. Ishida laid out a dark red Kutani teapot, cups, and a small strainer. Such special pieces; it was amazing he used them daily. ... My mentor went into the kitchen to take the whistling kettle off the stove. I toyed with the china, looking on the underside for its stamps. 
"When he came out, he poured me the first cup. 
"'Please try it,' he said. 
"'Itadakimasu.' I said grace before sampling the steaming, pale green liquid. 'A little grassy tasting. Fresh.' 
"He looked pleased. 'It is gyokuro, the highest grade of green tea. It comes from a farm that is eight generations old in Shizuoka Prefecture. I brewed it for exactly one minute.'" (Kindle Locations 5055-5062). 
Although this detective story was published some time ago, I found it still very readable: good escape fiction!

Blog post © 2020 mae sander. 


Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Good escape fiction is so important right now.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I always leave hungry when I visit your blog. I love a good mystery, so would love to know more about this one. I enjoyed reading about the food, which sounds like something Erika might have encountered when she visited Japan last year.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Seems like this book everything I’d need for a good escape novel! ... mystery, food, sense of place,....I’m off to my Library wish list!

Divers and Sundry said...

I read this years ago because it won an Agatha award. Books don't have to be new to be good :)

dee Nambiar said...

Now, I think I'd like to read this one. :)