And yet, the opposite seems to be true in Japan, where authors like Soji Shimada (author of the brilliant The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) sell well! I’m not Japanese, nor do I understand the language, so I really cannot comment in depth here. However, on the blog Detection by Moonlight, there recently was a guest blog written by Ho-Ling, who pointed out some Japanese detective novels (translated into English) worth checking out. After searching my library catalogue, I managed to find one of the books Ho-Ling mentions in his final list (which includes a disclaimer, “not a complete list”): Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X.
This novel is very recent—published in Japan in 2005, and published in English in 2011. (Hey! That’s this year! That means this book is the first “new” book I’ve reviewed on this blog!) It’s encouraging that I was on the holds waiting list for a few weeks before I got ahold of this book. My library also owns five copies of it—another encouraging sign. You never know, we could see a Silver Age for mysteries someday soon…
But I digress. The Devotion of Suspect X is about Yasuko Hanaoka, a divorced single mother. Her daughter, Misato, is a teenager attending high school and an active part of the badminton squad. Suddenly, one night, her ex-husband shows up at her doorstep. Things escalate and before you know it, he becomes violent towards Misato. Alarmed, Yasuko attacks him, and with the help of her daughter, in a desperate act of preservation, she strangles him…
Her neighbour next door is a high school math teacher named Ishigami. The man is a genius, who wishes he could devote his life to mathematics, but circumstances forced him to teach math to students the school refuses to fail in the first place. He has developed an infatuation for Yasuko and when he figures out what she has done, he devotes himself to her cause, calculating a perfect alibi for her and her daughter in order to divert suspicion and ensure they are not punished.
You may think I’ve given the game away, but I assure you I have not given anything away past Chapter 2. The scenes occur swiftly, and this book is more of an inverted murder mystery. You know who the culprit is. You know what Ishigami has set out to do. Now, you accompany the police inspector (Kusanagi) and the amateur sleuth (a physicist, Dr. Manabu Yukawa) as they try piecing the puzzle together.
This book pulls the inverted mystery off brilliantly. The victim, Togashi, was a despicable man: an alcoholic, abusive, an embezzler, and a stalker who would not leave his ex-wife alone. His murder was an act of self-defense, and you feel that Yasuko should not be punished for it. And so, as the sleuths close in on the solution, you aren’t rooting for them, but for the murderer.
Meanwhile, the relationships between the characters take on a dark twist. An old lover of Yasuko’s shows up, and this makes Ishigami jealous. He becomes a self-appointed guardian angel who takes his role a little too seriously. This becomes disturbing, and yet in a positive way—the personal struggles these characters go through ring a bell. As the plan slowly crumbles apart and Ishigami struggles to get a grip on himself, you are genuinely disturbed for his sake and for that of Yasuko and Misato. You see just how far his devotion will take him and every step is utterly fascinating. In short, the characters are brilliant and draw you into the story.
But this is not a novel mired in character angst. On the contrary, it is the ultimate showdown between the genius amateur sleuth and his equally admirable opponent. Every word they share may or may not carry a double meaning behind it— they relentlessly duel with each other throughout the novel, and every line of dialogue easily keeps your interest.
Briefly put, The Devotion of Suspect X takes the inverted mystery and gives it a whole lot of character. The translation is excellent, and if it does the original text any justice, Higashino’s writing is beautiful. And its ultimate success is the intellectual duel, which is as riveting as any between Columbo and one of his adversaries.
Speaking of Columbo, I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Peter Falk, a brilliant actor who was not only Columbo (of which I’ve only seen a handful of episodes) but also an actor in a few of my favourite movies, like Murder by Death and The Princess Bride. His portrayal of Columbo has left a lasting impression in popular culture and in the minds of mystery fans, and he will be sorely missed.