Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe is variously hailed as a ‘mystery’, a ‘murder mystery’ and a ‘thriller’. It is all of these but more besides. It is a commentary on reality/pretence, honesty/concealment, the individual/the collective, permanence/ephemerality and the interface between the mundaneness of everyday life and the fantasy world of cyberspace.
This short novel begins very much as a piece of detective fiction. Sergeant Takegami, who has made a career as a ‘desk’ officer, finds himself unexpectedly placed on a team investigating the double murder of a seemingly respectable middle-aged family man and company employee and a young woman who turns out to be his girlfriend, after his colleague collapses at work and is hospitalised in a coma. However, the novel soon strays from the normal pattern of a detective novel, as the story unfolds through a series of interviews with the suspects. All the present-time action takes place in the police interview room with occasional flashbacks as the suspects tell their stories. It is also not a traditional detective story in the sense that it is only the reader who is trying to unravel the mystery. Takegami and his colleagues, working on a hunch from their now comatose friend, feel they know who the perpetrator is. There is nothing for them to work out, but they need to be manipulative themselves in order to gather evidence and confessions.
So, if the novel partly deals with power and manipulation (and ultimately the fargility and breakdown of human relationships), it is not a clear-cut black and white morality here. Takegami is presented as a thoroughly likeable and sympathetic character and the behaviour of the police is exemplary (no seriously morally dubious practice here very much), but there is also an acknowledgement that the police also have to lie and be manipulative in order to obtain justice. The difference is perhaps that Takegami is aware of this contradiction.
This is not a long novel – less than 200 pages – but it is a satisyingly complex one.