Takako Otomichi is a female cop in a man's Japan. When a murder victim dies in a fire started by an incendiary device hidden in his belt, Takako is among the detectives assigned to the case. She's partnered with a male detective sergeant who views her as an ornament. The investigation seems to be running out of steam when a second gruesome death occurs, this one apparently caused by a wild dog or a domesticated wolf. The relationship between the killings is the mystery that occupies Takako professionally. Divorced and living alone until her annoying sister shows up, Takako's personal life frustrates her as much as her job.
Takako's perseverance makes her a sympathetic character, but she is also easy to like: she's smart, she's tenacious, and she has a biting sense of humor (although, for the most part, she keeps her sarcasm to herself). She thinks of her partner as "the emperor penguin." Her partner fits the stereotype of the career cop who has sacrificed his family to his job, who drinks too much and doesn't trust women. Although most of the story is presented from Takako's point of view, we sometimes see the novel's events through her male partner's eyes. The differing perspectives offer insight into the failure of the partners to communicate -- the two characters make assumptions about each other that, left unspoken, make it impossible for them to work as a team.
The subordinate role of women in Japanese society is a recurring theme in Japanese crime fiction (it appears in Out and The Cage among other novels); in The Hunter, Takako does her best to ignore the persistent sexism she encounters, even when it hobbles her investigation. She also tries to ignore her domineering mother and hapless sister, but doing so only adds to her stress. She feels best about herself when she's riding her motorcycle. Her connection to the mysterious animal she ends up tracking (as well as her love of riding) suggests her desire for freedom, a desire that is only a dream given the relentless demands of her job and family.
Readers looking for a strong female character should enjoy The Hunter. The novel isn't a whodunit -- there isn't much in the way of clues for the reader to piece together -- but the story moves quickly and in unexpected directions. The connection between the crimes is a bit farfetched, but that's common enough in thrillers. It's interesting to compare issues of gender equality across cultural lines, but it's even more interesting to read about Takako battling the kind of personal demons that afflict people in every culture. The prose in The Hunter flows more naturally than it does in some other novels translated from Japanese that I've read. For its intriguing central character and enjoyable story, I would give The Hunter 4 1/2 stars (if that option were available).