20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little Brown Book Group; 353 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray.

Keigo Higashino is a Japanese crime writer who likes to spin his tales in a completely different way to most crime writers. He basically takes the rules of the genre, rips them up and throws them away — and then does things completely on his own terms.

Whodunnit with an unusual structure

Newcomer, which is set in Tokyo, is a whodunnit but the narrative is structured in an unusual way: each phase of the police investigation into the homicide of a 40-something woman is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer.

The investigation is led by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman who has just been transferred to the Tokyo Police Department and who was first introduced to readers in Higashino’s previous novel Malice. (Newcomer is billed as book 2 in the Kyochiro Kaga series but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this one.)

As his investigation into the murder of divorcee Mineko Mitsui proceeds, more and more potential suspects enter the fray to the point where you wonder whether he is ever going to be able to weed out the real culprit.

The evocative setting — the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, which is dominated by family-run shops and all-night bars, and is, I believe, one of the original areas of the city — lends an olde-worlde charm to the tale as Kaga slowly but surely traces a series of items found in the dead woman’s home back to the shops in which they were purchased.

His logical and methodical inquiry eventually allows him to rule out several suspects, and the denouement comes in the form of a final chapter that reveals who did it, how they did it and why.

A bit of a plod

Regretfully, I didn’t find this book as exciting as previous Higashino novels I have read, and for the most part, I found it a little dull and plodding. I kept wondering how he was going to tie up all the loose ends, and by the time he did so, I’d become bored by the storyline. It definitely lacks tension.

But it’s an intriguing read in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting. Higashino wields his pen carefully, giving us a rather charming, calm and sensible hero, who uses his brain and his wits to put all the clues together without fuss or agenda. In many ways, Kaga might be a little too nice to be a police detective!

Newcomer — the title refers to Kaga being the new man in the police department — is an unconventional mix of cosy crime and modern-day police procedural. It’s an unconventional mystery full of red herrings, subtle reveals and a suspect list so long the book comes with a dramatis personae right upfront. It might be for you if you’re a crime reader looking for something a little on the unusual side.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 7 February 2021.

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

‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino

Malice

Fiction – paperback; Little, Brown; 281 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you think crime novels are generally formulaic whodunits, then let me introduce you to Japanese writer Keigo Higashino.

Higashino does not follow the normal conventions of the genre. In his cult sensation novel, The Devotion of Suspect X — one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read — the reader knows who committed the crime from the outset, but not how it was carried out. His follow-up novel, Salvation of a Saint, presented a similar conundrum.

But in Higashino’s latest crime novel, Malice, he takes it a step further: the book is not merely a howdunit, but a whydunit.

Professional rivals?

Malice tells the story of three men: two professional rivals, one of whom murders the other, and the police detective who investigates the crime.

Kunihiko Hidaka is the victim. A widower and bestselling author, he has recently remarried and is about to relocate to Canada to embark on a new life. His killer is an old childhood friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, a former teacher turned struggling writer, who strangles him to death on the eve of his departure.

The crime is investigated by Police Detective Kyochiro Kaga, who suspects Nonoguchi from the start but struggles to find a motive for the crime. Was Nonoguchi so jealous of Hidaka’s commercial success that he wanted to kill him? And why does Nonoguchi keep hinting that the death of Hidaka’s first wife may not have been accidental? How does Hidaka’s new wife, Rie, fit into the scheme of things?

This not-what-it-first-seems detective puzzle initially throws up more questions than answers, for the crime was committed in a locked room within a locked house, so how did the killer get inside? As the investigation unfolds it transforms into a fast-paced cat-and-mouse game between detective Kaga and his chief suspect, Nonoguchi, both of whom take it in turns to narrate their version of events in alternate chapters. Because they know each other well — they both taught in the same school a decade earlier — their shared history adds an extra dimension and level of intrigue to the story.

What follows is a dizzying array of twists and turns, so that just when you think you might have it figured out, a new fact or piece of information comes to light that turns everything else on its head. It is this steady drip-feed of information that keeps the reader turning the pages and guessing all the way to the end.

Plain prose

As per usual, Higashino’s prose is stripped back right to the bare bones. It can feel leaden and monotonous in places, but this is not the kind of book you read for its literary flourishes. This is a book that’s all about plotting — expertly done, as always — and character.

As a police procedural Malice is meticulous in its detail; as a psychological thriller, it pushes all the right buttons; and as a kind of tongue-in-cheek satire on literary circles and the writing life, it gives pause for thought — how many authors would do absolutely anything, including murder, to make the bestseller list?

I wouldn’t necessarily rank this one on the same level as The Devotion of Suspect X, but as a tightly written, difficult-to-guess, don’t-take-anything-on-face-value crime novel, Malice is a terrific — and totally addictive — read.

 

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

‘Salvation of a Saint’ by Keigo Higashino

Salvation-of-a-saint

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 384 pages; 2012. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith.

When I read Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X in late 2011, I thought it was one of the most extraordinary crime novels I’d ever experienced. It was a masterpiece of plotting filled with so many twists and turns it was impossible to guess the ending, and I loved every (restrained) word of it.

When Jeff, who comments here every now and then, told me last summer that there was a new Keigo Higashino novel in the offing I eagerly awaited its UK release. For some strange reason Salvation of a Saint was made available in a Kindle edition a few months before the hardcover hit out shelves (on 7 February), so I bought it because I honestly couldn’t wait to read it.

But this book is quite a different kettle of fish to its predecessor.

Death by poisoning

Salvation of a Saint is a very detailed police procedural focusing on the death of a young married man inside his empty apartment. Yoshitaka is found face down, sprawled on the wooden floor, with a spilled cup of coffee next to him. Tests reveal there was poison in his coffee.

There are two suspects in his case: his devoted wife, Ayane, an artist who makes beautiful quilts for a living, and Ayane’s young apprentice, Hiromi, who has been having an affair with Yoshitaka.

From the outset we know that the husband is not a particularly nice person. Just a day or two before his death, he told Ayane he wanted a divorce on the basis that she hadn’t fallen pregnant yet. They had been married just a year and he didn’t see the point in “continuing on like this if we can’t have children”.

But there’s a hitch: Ayane was hundreds of miles away visiting her parents when he died. So she can’t be to blame… or can she?

The reader knows a secret

Once again Higashino dishes up a murder mystery like no other. From the outset the reader is let in on a little secret. Just after Ayane is told that her marriage is over “she glanced at her dresser, thinking about the white powder hidden in a sealed plastic bag. […] Guess I’ll be using that soon, she thought”. But we are left in two minds about this powder: is it the poison used to kill Yoshitaka, or something else entirely?

We don’t find out until the very end, but as we follow the police investigation step by step you want to reach into the book and tell Detective Kusanagi (who also featured in The Devotion of Suspect X) and his department’s newest recruit, Kaoru Utsumi, to look in the dresser, look in the dresser!

Of course, if they did that the mystery would be solved in about 10 pages rather than the 384 pages it takes to tell this story. Instead, Higashino teases us with plenty of red herrings and twists and turns in the plot so that you are never quite sure what is going to happen next — and you’re never quite sure if Ayane is truly guilty or not. Her performance throughout is mesmerising — she’s cool, calm and collected, the last person you’d expect to be capable of murder.

Painstaking police investigation

At times I must admit the book feels tedious — that’s probably because the police investigation is so painstaking — and the solution is quite contrived and highly implausible. But I did enjoy the police banter, particularly the tension, competitiveness and humour between Kusanagi, the old, jaded detective who’s seen it all before, and Utsumi, his female colleague, who is young, bright and tenacious.

The university physicist Yukawa, who secretly helps out the police on their most baffling cases, also makes an appearance (he was in the previous novel, too) —  his “unofficial” work is vital in helping the police crack the case.

And while I don’t think Salvation of a Saint is a patch on The Devotion of Suspect X, it is nevertheless a good read about a complex, puzzling case with an emphasis on deciphering clues and figuring out how a simple crime could be committed so perfectly. If you’re looking for a crime novel that is refreshingly different, do give it a try.

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

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Devotion-of-suspect-x

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.