All Unwary

Two pieces stuck in the middle

By William Wetherall

First posted 13 March 2009
Last updated 7 May 2010


Clare Curzon
All Unwary
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998
248 pages, hardcover

This is one of two-dozen titles in Curzon's long-running "Yeadings and Mott" (Thames Valley) series of police thrillers, this one featuring Detective-Sergeant Rosemary Zyczynski and her rival and partner DS Beaumont.

The story is of interest because of Curzon's depictions of certain of its characters, particularly the daughter of a Japanese man and a British woman. Inevitably, her narrative also touches on the status of women and foreigners in Japan, and old animosities about the Pacific War.

Front flap synopsis

When Mayumi Matsukawa goes missing from her Wales boarding school dormitory one freezing February night, Inspector Mike Yeadings and his skeleton team are faced with the labyrinthine logistics of a twin investigation.

Beautiful and intelligent, the daughter of a wealthy Japanese business magnate and his English wife appears to be an obvious target for abduction. But when rumors of marital discord and extracurricular association with a London fashion photographer arise, the Thames Valley police must deepen their lines of inquiry.

Fears for Mayumi's safety turn out to be unfounded, but when her return and second disappearance frame the grisly death of her father's chief executive -- the man who had just accompanied the errant girl back to school -- one detail crucially confuses and defines the case: Dispatched to Britain in his boss's name, the murder victim may have suffered the fate planned for Mr. Matsukawa himself.

As Sergeants Beaumont and Rosemary Zyczynski [sic] set about connecting the murder and the missing person, they become increasingly convinced that the truth lies within the corporate jealousy and calculating passion of the close-knit industrial community of north Wales.

With customary slight-of-hand and understated style, Clare Curzon displays once again her ability to blend classic mystery with the issues of today.


The title comes from the following lines, cited on the page between the dedication and the start of the story, from the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado.

Three little maids who, all unwary,
Come from a ladies' seminary . . .
          The Mikado

Mayumi Matsukawa

Mayumi Matsukawa, one of the unwary students at a girls boarding school, is usually described as a "Japanese" or "Jap" -- but sometimes as a "half-Japanese" or "half-Jap" -- girl. Once she is a "foreign girl".

Detective-Sergeant Rosemary Zyczynski and her partner DS Beaumont respond to a missing person's report involving a student at a girls boarding school. They hear the particulars from the headmistress of the school, who at first calls the missing girl only May but then refers to her by a longer name (pages 5-6).

'It became evident when register was taken at 8:50 a.m. that May Matsukawa was officially missing. That is when I was informed.'


'Mayumi Matsukawa is half-Japanese, with an English mother. Normally an exemplary pupil in every way; hard-working, serious, perhaps even over-disciplined, as Asian students do often appear to us.'

The detectives talk with Mayumi's study-mates, Maddie and Julia (pages 9-10).

Beaumont's wooden expression masked his discomfiture. 'Look,' he said, grabbing the photograph provided by the Head's secretary, 'I'm taking this back for faxing, with the list of clothes she'd be wearing. Japanese girls aren't all that common round here. The sooner uniform branch get on to it the better. We should have her found in no time.' He marched out, leaving Maddie grinning.

'That's an old photo' Julia burst out. 'We've got better ones taken recently. She looks quite different now.'

The girl grunted as Maddie appeared to stumble against her. 'Ow! Pig! What's the matter?'

DS Zyczynski's eyes narrowed. 'Maddie doesn't seem to think that's such a good idea. Maybe she doesn't want Mayumi found just yet. Is that it? You think she's done a runner and deserves a chance to get right away?'

The two girls stared at her, Maddie defiant, Julia still annoyed, rubbing at her ankle.

'I'd like to see those recent photos, maybe borrow them. But meanwhile tell me about Mayumi. Or do you call her May?'

'Sometimes. But Doll, mostly,' Maddie admitted. 'Because that's how she looks. A perfect china doll. And she isn't really all that Jap. Sometimes you could take her for Welsh. But bags of black Asian hair, and green eyes with long, dark lashes. Smashing skin, sort of peachy.'

'Really pretty then?'

The girl nodded. Pretty Maddie wasn't, but there was an attractive impudence about her small monkey-face, the tip-tilted nose, saucy eyes and a brown mole high on her left cheek that somehow added piquancy. And her voice had a challenging lilt that was personal, owing nothing to local accent, the clipped consonants precisely enunciated, for all her tendency to slang.

The other girl was a bigger build, tall, with long blonde hair severely tied back; long-featured with a narrow forehead. She kept her gaze down, and her thick, pale lashes masked her eyes. She seemed less quick-witted. her well muscled limbs suggested she might perform better on the games filed than in class.

'Do you all get along well together?' Z asked.

'Like a three-piece suit,' Maddie claimed. 'No; more like a three-piece cruet, because we're all so different, but we are a set, definitely.

And Julia's, 'Oh yes,' was equally unforced. Z found she believed them.

Later there is an exchange between Maddie and her father, in which her father wonders if she doesn't have a friend she might like to invite over for Christmas, which is really his way of making sure Maddie doesn't need a lot of attention from him or from her stepmother. Maddie thinks of Mayumi who, "like herself, was seen as an unneeded marital complication" (page 23).

'Dad, you must remember Mayumi from Open Day in July.'

'That little Japanese?'

'Only half-Jap. Her mother's English. So she understands about Christmas. And she's the sort who'd fit in anywhere. She'll be absolutely no trouble at all, I promise.'

Mayumi's father has been dividing his time between Japan and the United Kingdom to supervise factories which he owns in both countries. In the meantime, Mayumi has cut her long hair off, her parents have not yet seen her like that, and it is not clear how she feels about her father's desire that she permanently return to Japan at the end of the school year (pages 13-14).

'Mayumi is more dutiful than we would expect of a modern Western girl. And it was not so much a proposal as a paternal edict. Female emancipation has barely brushed Japan as yet, and even there Mr Matsukawa, I believe, is considered to be of the old persuasion.'

'But the English wife . . . ?'

'Confided her misgivings to me. I was not entirely surprised to learn that she has now returned to her childhood home in Wiltshire. But for how long and with what arrangement in mind I can't foresee.'

Maddie, the daughter of a royal portrait painter, had lost her mother to death the year she was born and had had two step mothers in her life (pages 15-16).

But Maddie's resilient, a strong character, which is why I had such confidence in her taking care of Mayumi.'

'And you feel Mayumi needs special care? Because a family break-up is on the cards?'

'Originally I put the two girls together because she is the only part-Japanese girl we have here. Young people can be hurtful to any contemporaries they consider different from the common run. But no one is going to display racial prejudice when Maddie's around. And now her matter-of-factness about divorce could help May see her own situation in perspective.

This is followed by a page of details about the Matsukawas, and generalizations about how Japanese businessmen "see little of their families at the best of times" (page 16).

Elizabeth Matsukawa

Elizabeth Matsukawa's view of her situation is revealed in a series of scenes, including one in which she is questioned by DS Z concerning Mayumi's disappearance (pages 31-32).

Madam Butterfly in reverse, Z thought: a Japanese Pinkerton who went sailing on to larger issues, leaving the Western wife to be engrossed by her child.

Mayumi, as her mother predicts, shows up at her mother's home, where DS Z talks to her. Mayumi has been worried that her father will force her to go back to Japan. And she has reason to believe that the helicopter just then circling behind the home farm was sent by her father to take her away (pages 39-40).

'What will he do?' May asked wildly. At last she seemed to lose her nerve, her fingers biting into Z's sweater sleeve.

How the hell would I know? Z asked herself. But he couldn't be a total tyrant, could he?

'Does he -- I mean, is he cruel to you, May?' she demanded.

'Cruel? He doesn't mean to be. It's just that he decides everything. He's right up there above us all. he thinks I'm a small child, to follow orders. He can't see . . .'

Z put an arm around her shoulders. At least the girl had parents; unlike herself at this age.

'He does what he thinks is best for you. Your time will come. If it's any consolation, I didn't enjoy being young either.'

The girl pulled away. The green eyes defied her own. 'But you are a whole person,' she accused with passion. 'I am in two pieces that don't fit.' She thrust her hands in the jodhpur pockets and, coatless, went out to follow her mother, her shirt-tail blowing in the wind.

Elizabeth Matsukawa waited for the "moon-face of her husband" to appear from the helicopter, but she saw instead the "long hatchet features of his number two, Imura" (page 40).

The Mikado had not troubled to come himself. Instead he had dispatched his Lord High Executioner.

DS Z later recalled Mayumi's words like this (page 43).

Hadn't Mayumi herself said, passionately, 'I am in two pieces that don't fit!' She hadn't meant only her genes. There were two opposing worlds, and she was precariously balanced between them.

Several pages are later given to an intimate mother-daughter talk. Here are some of the highlights (pages 56-58).

The relaxed mood lasted with them through most of their meal, until Elizabeth felt it was safe to ask, 'May, how do you feel about me leaving your father?'

[ Omitted. ]

'How do you expect I would feel?' Mayumi's eyes were angry when they met her own. 'Do you really have to?'

Yes, to survive; Elizabeth wanted fervently to answer. 'You think it's unnecessary then?'

'It looks that way to me. You seem to get along all right. And it's not as though you both have to spend much time together. I mean, you're always saying he's never at home.'

'perhaps it's more the country than the man that I'm leaving. There's no place there for me, regarded as a foreign freak. I was never accepted, just an onlooker unable to influence what went on. Even in my own home. It was other women employed to look after you, in case I made mistakes, gave you wrong values. And I don't suppose you ever knew they were your father's comfort girls'. [sic punctuation]

'How could I know? I barely ever saw him there.'

'No. He neglected them almost as badly as he did me.'

So why did you stay with him this long?

'What else could I do? You were all I had, even the little I was allowed to have of you.'

'You found them as strange as they found you.'

'I don't want to be judgmental. It's just that we are totally different races, have different blind spots, different standards of behaviour, hygiene, culture. They regard all Westerners as clumsy, overgrown barbarians. And Japanese men -- to me they seem more like cruel children, treating their women like talking dolls. it's no country to be a woman in even yet. And in private I think most good little Japanese wives despise their tin-god husband.'

[ Omitted. ]

She shook her head. 'It's a question of -- balance, I suppose. I just can't be a Japanese wife. I've tried. god knows I've put a lot into it. Until I've lost touch with the sort of person I ream am. Was.'

[ Omitted. ]

'And now you wish it hadn't happened, any of it?'

'May, I wouldn't for the world have missed having you. You were the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. You must know how much I love you.'

[ Omitted. ]

'You're pulled apart,' said May. 'You imagine you can go backwards in time and get free. Perhaps you can. But I can't. I'm here and I'm stuck in the middle.'

Asians and Chinks

Curzon's descriptive labels are fairly common in British fiction. Superintendent Yeadings assigns Zyczynski a bordereline Child Protection Unit case involving an "Asian family", and DI Mott assigns PC Azis to assist her (page 63).

The door then opened a mere three inches on its chain and the shadowy face of an elderly Asian woman appeared.

Z stepped forward, smiled reassuringly and wished her good afternoon. The woman was unresponsive. As if slotted in a wooden mask, her eyes switched to the Asian constable who spoke to her in Gujerati. She answered at first falteringly, then volubly protesting. Suddenly animated, she was flicking bony brown fingers in front of her face. It was unmistakably a demand that they should withdraw.

Terminology reflects social class as much as personal feelings and habit. Toward the end of the story, Tom Wetherby, an alcoholic Welsh poacher, finds an injured man lying on his face in a field (page 232).

When Tom turned him to see his face he proved even more of a foreigner than expected. After the city suit, the Asian features. 'A bloody Chink,' Tom marvelled.

The man is Mr. Matsukawa, and Tom, when questioned by Zyczynski, has a bright idea (page 241).

'That Chinese bloke -- Japanese, whatever -- he's supposed to be rich, ain't he?'

'Seriously rich, I believe.'

'Well; don't suppose he'd be offerun a reward, like?'