Saturday, February 02, 2013

A most improbable murder - on Keigo Higashino's creepy new mystery

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review]

Keigo Higashino's thriller Yōgisha X no Kenshin - which became an international publishing sensation as The Devotion of Suspect X when it was translated from Japanese into English two years ago - was a most unusual kind of murder mystery; strictly speaking, not a murder mystery at all, since the killing, committed in self-defence, occurred within the first 30 pages, with the reader made privy to everything that led up to it (only at the end did one realise that a small but vital piece of information had been withheld). The suspense came from the way the narrative moved between the police investigation and the murderer’s attempts at alibi-creation, and the final twist – involving the nature of the cover-up – was ingenious. But the book’s lingering quality – its ability to stay under a reader’s skin long after its secrets had been disclosed – hinged on its portrayal of two people who match wits: one a brilliant physicist-sleuth named Yukawa (also known as Detective Galileo) and the other a criminal with almost unfathomable, monk-like reserves of personal dedication and forbearance.

Now another Higashino novel is out in translation, as Salvation of a Saint, and it has all the qualities that made the first book so gripping. As in The Devotion of Suspect X, the suspense lies not so much in the murderer’s identity (though in this case there is some second-guessing on that front too) but in how the crime was pulled off – and the solution is just as jaw-dropping.

These are the facts of the case: a man named Yoshitaka lies dead in his house, a spilt cup of poisoned coffee by his side. Yoshitaka was not, we learn, particularly sensitive in his treatment of women (Higashino does seem to derive literary pleasure from turning unpleasant men into murder victims!), and there are basically two suspects: his wife Ayane and his lover Hiromi. Once again, the reader is allowed to be a step ahead of the investigating detectives – we know Hiromi is not guilty because most of the early events, leading up to the discovery of the body, have been presented through her shocked perspective. Also, within the first few pages, we have been told that Ayane at least intended to kill her husband and had the means to do so. The rub is, she was hundreds of miles away, visiting her parents, when the coffee was made and consumed. As the detectives try to postulate scenarios where she might have pre-planned the killing before she left, they come up against a wall – and eventually the sardonic Yukawa is brought in to weigh the options.

What he discovers – and I feel I can write this without giving away any spoilers – is something very close to the perfect crime, with a solution that is simultaneously very simple and dangerously outlandish. When it is revealed, your gut response might be to snort “Impossible” (which is basically what the detectives listening to Yukawa do). I even felt a little cheated at first, as if the author had blindsided me by stepping outside the permissible limits of the genre. But further reflection shifted my view of what was possible and what wasn’t; I began to see the peculiar internal logic of the denouement in light of the personalities and the lifestyles involved, and the crime no longer appeared so unfeasible.

Of course, a 370-page book has to be more than its climactic disclosure, and Salvation of a Saint is tense and well-paced. It does contain at least one over-familiar trope of the police procedural or noir – a detective becoming attracted to an apparently vulnerable woman, perhaps compromising his own integrity in the process – though this isn’t stretched to the point of derivativeness. The actual writing has some of the functional woodenness that you find in most commercial fiction of this sort – too many references to a character’s eyes “widening in surprise”, for example, or hands gripping a phone tightly when unexpected news is received – but these are genre tics, easy enough to ignore up to a point. (Besides, as has often been observed, Japanese writing translated into English can seem a little stilted and over-formal, especially when the reader is from a culture that doesn’t understand why a detective might remove his shoes outside a house before going in to question a murder suspect.)

This book is about a crime born of very deep passion, but with no sudden bursts of action, no explicit violence or dramatic confrontations, it is unnerving in ways that more conventional thrillers are not. And despite the fact that the setting is a homogenous modern city and the characters are in some ways indistinguishable from upper-middle-class people living anywhere on the planet, there is something distinctly Japanese about it, something of the deceptive placidity of the filmmaker Ozu or the novelist Ishiguro. One senses a neat and ordered contemporary world with mystical rumblings beneath its surface, like the Sheep Man in Haruki Murakami’s novels, hidden in a forgotten corner of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, or a videotape being employed by supernatural forces in Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. Higashino’s book is set in a world of tidy kitchens with coffee-makers and bottled mineral water, of dating parties and urbane dinner-time banter, but underlying it all is something much more primal. The image I was left with at the end was the indelible one of a spider watching quietly, attentively over her web.

[A short post about The Devotion of Suspect X is here]


  1. A murder mystery? Isn't it too middlebrow, by your usual standards?

  2. Anon: somehow I doubt that question was intended seriously, but just in case: no. I'm not genre-resistant or category-resistant at all, and mystery/suspense/noir has always been a big part of my reading. In any case I probably read a lot more "middlebrow" fiction than "highbrow" fiction.

  3. what I really meant was, how did Hindu accept an essay on a murder mystery? They're usually finicky about the kind of books they report on.

  4. Anon,
    1) If that's what you really meant, it doesn't show at all in your first comment, 2) This was a review of a new book, not an essay, 3) The Hindu is not finicky (and nor should they be) about covering genre fiction if they have decent writers doing it for them.

  5. Jai, looking forward to this! Still remember our discussions about the early work of Thomas Harris...

  6. Vineet: yes, must reread some of those old Harrises - it's been a while. Did watch parts of Manhunter again a few weeks ago; the first Lecter scene in it is so effective.

  7. I liked this book, though I thought it lacked atmosphere.
    You may also like Out by Natsuo Kirino.
    Incidentally,the wife murders the husband in both these books (not a spoiler) and the wife works in a "Boxed lunch" shop in both of them as well.

  8. the wife works in a "Boxed lunch" shop

    Rahul: that's in The Devotion of Suspect X - not in Salvation of a Saint.

  9. I am guilty of commenting after reading the first paragraph. My comment was about Suspect X.

  10. I read this piece in The Hindu today. I liked it a lot. I think it is the wife. Just guessing!!! Perhaps I will read the first book.

    By the way the cover says he is Stieg Larsson of Japan. Do you think it is a complimentary line? Or is he better than Larsson?

  11. Higashino is more compulsively readable and there are not too many digressions as in the Larsson books. Both of Higashino's books are what you would call a 'compulsive page turner' with killer denouements. Of course am assuming that there is a lot lost in translation, so at times it appears stilted and halting.
    While The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was riveting, (I guess it was more to do with the amoral Elizabeth Salander) the sequels though enjoyable appeared laboured.
    Ultimately, one can't compare Higashino and Larsson, because both of them offered varied thrills.


  12. Thanks for this recommendation. I was not aware that his new book has come out.

    I really liked Devotion of Suspect X. What works for me is the striped down version of the genre that he presented by taking out any technological complexity, unnecessary hero building, any complex organization, or complex forensic techniques and the sheer focus on plain old match of wits.

    He did manage to throw me off the twist in the end as I was thoroughly convinced that this was all about just matching of wits but the same wont happen this time :-)

  13. I'm a little underwhelmed by Higashino. As someone here said, his books lack atmosphere and strong characterisation. Jai, if you're looking for a murder mystery in which the past casts long and evil shadows, read 'Missing Joseph' by Elizabeth George. I read it almost immediately after finishing 'Salvation' and I couldn't help compare the two. Not only is George's book darker, far more nuanced and filled with complex characters, it is also infinitely better written.

  14. I was seriously disturbed by "Salvation...". The murder victim was a reprehensible person to begin with and I cannot empathize with women who sleep with married men (because "he kept asking"!) under any circumstances.

    Higashino has the habit of making the murderer a sympathetic character that we root for. However, we all know the poetic justice of detective fiction. In this case it was just plain sad.

  15. The Devotion of Suspect X!!!!

    Awesomely crafted book!!! The brains of the Ishigami and Yukawa brilliantly written by the Author!!!! You will not even get hint of the plot. As it is told in the book, you will go by the problem as it is shown to you and not in the way you wanted to solve it.

    A very good book to read if you are Stieg larrson Fan.... Although not as good as stieg larrson but yeah worth reading it!!!!

    I'm not disappointed with the climax, but with the character of the book!!!!

  16. Finished the book and thanks again for the recommendation. Nice word play on the title of this post :-)

    Cant help but compare this one with Christie. Similar settings, lack of violence and intense focus on the question of "who did it and how". I also see some similarity to the Black widow series by Isaac Asimov and a similar knack for introducing a complex problem and simple solution.

    The twist this time was not as good as the first one (maybe because I was expecting it after the first book).

    Overall this book was good but not as satisfying as the first one. I have never supported a villain as much as I did with Ishigami in the first book.