Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino


Fiction – paperback; Little, Brown; 374 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith, with Elye J. Alexander. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

To what lengths would you go to cover up a murder? For maths teacher Ishigami — “Suspect X” of the title — the answer is absolutely everything. This is despite the fact that he is innocent of the crime in question. His motivation is nothing more than love — and an obsession with mathematical puzzles.

Cult sensation

In this extraordinary crime thriller, which has been a major sensation in its native Japan and turned into a cult film, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps Ishigami undertakes to protect the real murderer.

According to Kishitani’s report, the body had been left in a sorry state. It had been stripped of clothes, shoes, even socks. The face had been smashed — like a split melon, the young detective had said, which was more than enough to make Kusanagi queasy. The fingers had been burned, too, completely destroying any fingerprints. The corpse was male. Marks around the neck indicated he had been strangled. There were no other wounds apparent on the rest of the body.

And therein lies the mystery of The Devotion of Suspect X, one of the best plotted crime novels I’ve ever read. How did Ishigami move the body? What is the bicycle doing near it? And how is it possible for him to always be one step ahead of the police?

The story is effectively one giant riddle, but it’s an intelligent riddle. If we understand that to solve a crime you must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, then it follows that to create the perfect crime you must work backwards and mix real clues in with red herrings so that it cannot be solved.

This is what Ishigami, a mathematician who gave up a promising academic career to teach maths to high school students, does: he treats the crime as a mathematical problem that only a genius could solve. But his one-time rival, the university physicist Yukawa, who unofficially helps Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police with the investigation, may be the only one smart enough to figure it all out.

Intelligent plotting and a fast-paced narrative

What I loved about the story — aside from the wonderful characters, the detached prose style and the evocative Tokyo setting — was the intelligence of the plotting and the way in which the tension increases the further you get into the story. Yasuko, the woman who committed the crime, is told to simply follow Ishigami’s instructions. While she does this blindly, her nervousness is palpable throughout and you know that it won’t be long before she puts a foot wrong and the police are on to her.

And then there’s the competitive element with Yukawa, the only man intelligent enough to figure out what Ishigiami is up to: will he solve the case before the police?

With such a taut narrative it’s hard not to keep turning the pages.

But while it might be easy to dismiss The Devotion of Suspect X as nothing more than a clever puzzle to be solved, the author explores the repercussions of the crime on the people most closely involved in it. He makes them flesh-and-blood real, with foibles, flaws and fears — and at times you don’t know whether you should feel pity or condemnation for them.

The real success of the novel, however, lies in the impossible-to-guess climax. I found myself completely in awe of the way in which Keigo Higashino drew everything together so neatly and still managed to provide an utterly unexpected ending, completely out of left-field.

Is it any wonder more than two million copies of this book have been sold in Japan alone: it is a masterpiece of authorial restraint, concept and plotting. More please.

26 thoughts on “‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino”

  1. What a brilliant review Kim:) I hope some of Higashino’s short stories featuring Dr. Yukawa are translated into English! I’ve also been watching the Japanese drama series called Galileo based on the short stories too.


  2. I’ve have this on my Kindle & keep meaning to read it, inspired by another Bloggers post, but some other books get in the way, so thanks for the timely reminder via this great post, will now definitely read it asap.


  3. This book sounds excellent! I’ve been enjoying thriller lately, and I remember being curious about this one when it came out earlier this year. I’m adding it to my wishlist too!


  4. Have you read his other thriller “Naoko”? It sounds slightly far-fetched but I’d be prepared to give it a go based on the strength of this one. Interesting to hear he writes short stories too…


  5. Yes, do read it! But make sure you’ve got nothing else on your agenda because it’s a difficult book to put down. I read this one while on hols in November; I didn’t read it in one sitting, but I came pretty close!


  6. I don’t read a lot of Japanese literature and only looked at this one because my friends from the local authors’ festival left it in a pile for me earlier this year. Like you, I was involved from the very first page — great plot, great characters. It would have to rank on my shortlist of surprises of the year.


  7. I read this a few months ago too and really enjoyed it. I did find that I was starting to get twitchy about 3/4 of the way through as it seemed to drag for a while but the ending was so wortht the wait – I didn’t see it coming at all.


  8. I can’t say that this book dragged on for me at any point, but I know what you mean by the ending. It was brilliant — and I would never have guessed it in a million years!


  9. I should probably point out that there really isn’t any maths in it — it’s more an allegory — but even so, there’s enough clues and red herring in this story to test the puzzle-solving abilities of even the most hardened crime genre reader!


  10. Really? You hated it? I thought it was a masterpiece of plotting, suspense and atmosphere — and quite unlike any crime fiction I’ve read before. But the world would be boring if we all liked the same things, right? 🙂


  11. I don’t think I would have come across this title other than here, and it sounds quite interesting. Great review, I’m not that into mystery/crime novels but I’ll look out for this one.


  12. This is not your average run-of-the-mill crime novel, so you might be pleasantly surprised by how much you like it, Annie. Give it a go — and come back and let me know what you thought.


  13. Just finished the book, I found it very boring. The flat prose and Americanisation did not help. I just could not care about any of the characters except the daughter and she was kept out of it apart from her bookending actions so we never heard her story.


  14. I think I stayed in bed all day to read this, it was so compulsive. The characters are amazingly fleshed out.
    I love Japanese literature and another crime novel with a twist is “Villain” by Shuichi Yoshida. Aside from the usual investigations and stuff it really scrutinizes Japan as a society in a way that’s very interesting. It has a lot going on and like this book has been adapted to film.


  15. kimbofo – if you didn’t know, I thought it would interest you to know that another Keigo Higashino novel has been given an English translation, “Salvation of a Saint.” I noticed it while browsing through Amazon. It’s another “Detective Galileo” novel so some of the people from Suspect X make return appearances.


  16. Thanks for letting me know. I’ve looked it up online and it seems it won’t be available in the UK until February 2013, although the Kindle edition will be available much sooner. Something for me to look forward to! 🙂


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