Book lists, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting

6 gripping crime fiction reads from Japan

The crime genre is often accused of being formulaic and cliched, but the handful of Japanese crime novels that I have read tend to shun the usual conventions. In these well crafted stories we often know who has committed the crime. Sometimes we even know how they did it. And occasionally we know why.

Japanese crime writers, it seems, are more interested in looking at the circumstances surrounding a crime, the impact of the crime on victims, friends, family, investigators and even the accused, and  what these crimes say about society at large. I find them wholly fascinating and know that whenever I pick up a Japanese crime novel I’m going to read something entertaining as well as intelligent.

As with most Japanese fiction, these novels are generally written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style, which only adds to the chilling nature of the stories.

Here’s a handful of Japanese crime novels that I can recommend, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

 

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino is a master crime writer whose tales turn the genre on its head. I have read several (all reviewed here) but The Devotion of Suspect X is my favourite. In this extraordinary crime thriller, 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 that have been taken to protect the real murderer. The story is effectively one giant riddle; the reader must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, mindful that the real clues have been mixed in with red herrings! It’s a brilliantly gripping read — and turned me into a Higashino fan.

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino

I read Out many years ago (sadly it’s not reviewed on this blog), but the story — of a group of women who help a colleague get rid of the body of the philandering husband she has murdered — is another Japanese crime novel that turns the genre on the head. Yes, we know who committed the crime and we know all the women who become accessories after the fact, we even understand why and how the murder was carried out. But what we don’t know is whether the perpetrators will get away with it and whether one of them will say or do the wrong thing to give the game away. It’s a real nailbiting novel, but it’s also an insightful one about misogyny, domestic violence and the Japanese working class.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

This dark novel is a revenge story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands with devastating and gruesome consequences. It focuses on a grief-stricken school teacher, who accuses two of her students of having murdered her daughter. She doesn’t name the students but drops enough clues that everyone knows who she is pointing the finger at. She then avenges the crime, but this does not bring peace: it simply begats more crime so that a dizzying dark spiral of events unfolds, sucking people into its deadly centre. It’s a terrifying novel but it deals with big themes, including how we teach children right from wrong, how society deals with child criminals and what barriers there should be between teachers and their students. It’s a thought-provoking read.

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

The central focus of The Aosawa Murders is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The book, which has a complex structure featuring multiple view points and time frames, is about the long-lasting impact of the crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well and the local community. There’s no neat ending, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a marked impression as the reader tries to process what happened and why.

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

This prize-winning novella is told from the point of view of a man who makes his living by petty theft. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system. But he isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective. This isn’t a story about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s mind which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. It’s an intriguing conceit.

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

This book looks at the outfall of the murder of a young woman on a series of characters, including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused, and shows how they adjust to their changed circumstances. So while there is a crime at the heart of this novel, it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it. Again, it’s another fascinating examination of the sociological and psychological impact of a crime on a community.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Can you recommend any other crime books from Japan that are worth reading?

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, BIPOC 2021, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Publisher, Reading Projects, Riku Onda, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 346 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts.

The Aosowa Murders by Riku Ondo turns the normal conventions of the crime novel on its head. Featuring multiple voices and multiple time frames, the story does not have a neat ending. It leaves the reader with more questions than answers. I finished it a week ago and I am still trying to process what happened.

Death by poison

The central focus of the story is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths at a family celebration in an impressive villa by the sea. The prime suspect is the family’s beautiful and bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill the loved ones who have given her such a comfortable and “normalised” life?

But The Aosowa Murders is not really a whodunnit because it emerges that another suspect — a young courier who delivered the drinks which were laced with poison — confessed to the crime in a suicide note he left behind when he hanged himself.

Instead, this novel is really about the long-lasting impact of such a horrendous crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well (they were prominent doctors and ran a health clinic) and the local community.

It’s told retrospectively, several decades after the crime, and is as much about a young university student, Makiko, a childhood friend of Hisako’s who wrote a best-selling fictionalised account of what happened, as it is about the actual event and its aftermath.

Eye-witness testimonies

The book is structured around a series of testimonies in which the interviewer remains absent, so you are never quite sure what the questions are or who is asking them. This lends a one-sided dimension to each chapter, but this multi-voiced approach allows the reader to put together a narrative in his or her head, joining the dots and solving the crime without anything being spelt out by the author herself.

This makes for a challenging read, but it’s a refreshing take on the crime novel. It’s almost as if you become the detective and with each passing chapter you gather more “evidence”, some of which is pivotal to the crime and some of which is irrelevant — and the fun is trying to determine which is which.

It’s an excellent portrait of contemporary Japan, its manners and morals, but I think the biggest (and most important) question it raises is this: how do you make sense of a terrible crime if you don’t understand the motive behind it?

If you like books that make you think, then The Aosowa Murders is a good one to tackle, but if you prefer your crime stories to be relatively straightforward with all the loose ends tied up by the end, then this is probably not for you.

The Aosawa Murders won the 59th Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Novel and was selected by the New York Times as one of the most notable books of 2020. Lizzy liked it too.

This is my 3rd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 2nd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here. 

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Penance’ by Kanae Minato

Penance

Fiction – paperback; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.

A few years ago I read Kanae Minato’s debut novel Confessions about a teacher who accuses two of her pupils of a terrible crime, then seeks vengeance on them. It was a compelling read, but incredibly dark — and it didn’t exactly chime well with my moral compass.

Penance is Minato’s second novel. It charts similar territory but isn’t quite as dark. It still deals with the notion of vengeance and murder, and posits the idea that if you’re a witness in a crime case but can’t remember crucial details that may help catch the culprit, then you’re not much better than the criminal who carried out the act.

It’s the kind of story that throws up lots of questions about moral culpability, justice and retribution, and it makes for yet another compelling read.

Murder of a young girl

The book pivots around one central act: the murder of a 10-year-old school girl in rural Japan. Her four friends — Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko — are with her when a stranger approaches them and asks for help.

Civic-minded Emily goes off with him, leaving her friends behind. She is never seen alive again.

The surviving girls, horrified by what has happened, cannot recall the face of the stranger and offer little in the way of detail that might help track him down.

A couple of years later Emily’s mother, half demented by grief, needs someone to blame. She approaches the girls with an ultimatium: if they do not find the murderer they must atone for their crimes, otherwise she will have her revenge on them.

Mosaic structure

The novel is divided into six chapters. Each character — Emily, her four friends (now in their mid-20s) and Emily’s mother — get their turn to tell their story. Not only do we hear their different viewpoints about what happened on the day of the murder, we learn how the murder impacted the rest of their lives. This does mean that some events are hashed over again and again, but this repetition doesn’t detract from the overall narrative: it simply allows you to see how different people interpret the same event in different ways.

To complicate matters further, each chapter is told in a different style — for instance, one takes the form of a letter to Emily’s mother, another is a confession to a counsellor — which can make Penance feel less like a novel and more like a collection of short stories.

But the overall effect works. Minato weaves a deft tapestry of human emotions, motivations and contradictions. And in her stripped back, almost limpid prose, she’s able to show how different personalities not only react to a single event in different ways, but she expertly charts how the girls’ lives and career paths veer off in different directions in the years following Emily’s death. This makes for a powerful read.

A crime novel with a difference

Perhaps the book’s main failing is its slide into becoming ludicrous — it’s difficult to elaborate without giving away spoilers. But let’s just say the ways in which the girls atone for not catching Emily’s murderer lead them to carry out their own devastating acts with long-lasting repercussions on other people.

Penance is not your typical crime novel. The murderer himself is almost incidental to the story: it’s not about who did it, but what happens to those who survive. A subsidiary narrative thread that runs throughout each of the girl’s individual stories fleshes out the idea that we are all capable of hideous acts if the circumstances are right.

It’s not quite as brilliant as Confessions, but this is an intriguing read if you’re looking for something a little different.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Gun’ by Fuminori Nakamura

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – hardcover; Soho; 198 pages; 2016. Translate from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

My first introduction to Japanese crime writer Fuminori Nakamura was in 2012 when I read his prize-winning novella The Thief, an extraordinary story about a pickpocket who targets the rich and helps the poor.

The Gun, to be published by Soho next week, is another prize-winning book by the same author. It was Nakamura’s debut novel, originally published in hardcover in Japan in 2003 and now published in English for the first time.

Obsessed with a gun

The simple story is about a college student, Nishikawa, who finds a handgun at a crime scene, inexplicably steals it and then becomes obsessed with the weapon. He takes it home, buys special material to wrap it up in, polishes it with a kind of creepy reverence and thinks about it constantly. It becomes more important to him than his sex life:

I returned to my apartment and opened the satchel. The gun was as breathtakingly beautiful as ever. The girl I had just slept with was no comparison for the gun. In this moment, the gun was everything to me, and would be everything to me from now on as well. As I pondered whether or not it was loaded, I gazed at its piercing metallic sheen.

Over the course of the next few months he becomes more and more obsessed by his new illegal possession and decides he needs to use it for its true purpose  — to kill a human being.

A chilling storyline

The most impressive thing about the book is the chilling nature of it. It’s written in fairly pedestrian prose, with scarcely an adjective in it, but it builds up a slow momentum as you begin to wonder whether Nishikawa, who was in an orphanage until the age of six, will ever get caught.

It’s written in the first person, so you only ever get to see things from his point of view, but it soon becomes clear that for all his supposed normality he’s out of touch with his emotions — he never loses his temper (even when he has good reason to), treats his girlfriends abysmally, doesn’t care too much about his parents and even less about the biological father who lies dying in a hospital bed — and only begins to worry when a policeman knocks on his door. Even so, he never seems to understand the consequences of his actions.

But Nishikawa isn’t without heart — he cares about the little boy who lives next door whom he suspects of being physically abused and takes steps to report the situation to the authorities — and is well liked by his peers.

Not your usual crime novel

As with The Thief — and much other Japanese crime fiction I’ve read — this book is not about solving a crime but gives you a glimpse inside the head of a young man who could, potentially, carry out a horrendous criminal act. It asks many questions — what makes good people do bad things? how do you go from committing one small crime to one big one? does the criminal ever feel justified in his actions? how do internal and external events impinge on what happens? — and provides some answers, albeit limited ones.

It shows how an alienated youth, seemingly well-adjusted and well liked, can become caught up in events greater than himself, events that will changes his life in ways he may never have imagined possible before. And it has a lot to say about guns, including their beauty, their craftsmanship, their fascinating appeal — and the violent purpose for which they are designed.

The Gun was originally published in a Japanese literary magazine and was awarded the Shinchō Prize for new writers in 2002.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Kanae Minato, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Setting

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

Confessions

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 240 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Japanese do a nice line in dark fiction, whether crime or otherwise — think Keigo HigashinoShuichi YoshidaFuminori NakamuraNatsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa, to name just a handful.

Kanae Minato’s debut novel, Confessions, is no exception. This revenge tale, set in a middle school in a small town, explores issues relating to morality, justice and child crime. It’s a cracking story about adolescence gone wrong, with lots of unexpected plot twists and horrifying outcomes, but it’s probably one of the darkest books I’ve read in quite awhile.

And having read it back-to-back with another dark story of vengeance — Harriet Lane’s Her — I think that’s my quota of malicious tales done for the year.

Teacher seeks vengeance

The book opens with a grief-stricken schoolteacher, Yuko Moriguchi, addressing the pupils in her class on the last day of her teaching career — she’s decided to retire following the untimely death of her beloved four-year-old daughter, who was found drowned in the school’s swimming pool.

What begins as a relatively pleasant farewell speech descends into a bitter diatribe in which she accuses two of her students of murdering her daughter. She doesn’t name them, but they can be clearly identified by the things she says.

Because the age of criminal responsibility in Japan is 14 and the accused are just 13, Moriguchi decides to take the law into her own hands and dishes out her own form of justice. It turns out to be a rather cruel and unusual punishment — in fact, it’s downright jaw-droppingly horrific.

From this one act of vengeance, things slowly spiral out of control and by the book’s end there is at least one other person dead and another locked away in an asylum — which begs the question: would the outcomes have been any better under the normal channels of justice?

Five different perspectives

The book is structured around six longish chapters, the first and last of which are told from the teacher’s perspective. The intervening chapters are told from other character’s points of view, so that we get to hear from each of the accused, student A and student B; the mother of student B; and the class president.

While this means some scenes are retold over and over again — how the body was discovered, for instance —  the new perspectives help deliver new insights into how others are affected by events. Their reactions and their motivations aren’t always predictable — sometimes they’re simply terrifying.

It’s written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style typical of modern Japanese fiction, which only adds to the chilling nature of the storyline.

Big themes

And while it could be described as a quiet and understated novel, it deals with some surprisingly big themes — How do you teach children right from wrong? How should society deal with child criminals?  What barriers should there be between teachers and their students?

It depicts a society falling apart at the seams, where children either seek fame and glory by committing the most horrendous crimes or they drop out of society altogether by locking themselves away to become hikikomori (“shut-ins”). It paints a rather bleak picture of modern Japan. It’s not cheerful reading by any stretch of the imagination — the morality of many of the characters is dubious at best.

However, as a page turner that treads spine-chilling territory based on the twisted behaviour of a handful of deliciously dark characters, it’s rather superb. And I’m not the only one who thinks so: according to the “About the Author” page in my edition, Confessions has sold more than three million copies in Japan and has won several literary awards, including the Radio Drama Award, the Detective Novel Prize for New Writers and the National Booksellers’ Award. In 2009 it was adapted into a film directed by Tetsuya Nakashima.

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, Japan, Setting, Shuichi Yoshida, Vintage

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

Villain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 304 pages; 2010. Translated from the Japanese by Shuichi Yoshida.

Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain isn’t your typical crime novel. Yes, there is a crime at its heart — the murder of a young woman — but it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it.

The book, which is set in Japan, is more a look at the outfall of the murder on a series of characters — including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused — and how they adjust to changed circumstances. As such, it provides an interesting glimpse of contemporary Japanese society.

A young woman’s murder

Yoshino Ishibashi is a young insurance saleswoman who has moved to the city to work and have fun. She is a regular user of dating sites and has become acquainted with several men — the rich college boy Kiago and the good-looking but aloof construction worker Yuichi — but she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend. Yet that’s not what she tells her flatmates, Saki and Mako, who believe she’s seeing Kiago on a regular basis — a notion of which Yoshino does not disabuse them.

This, of course, muddies the waters when Yoshino does not return home after supposedly meeting Kiago very late at night for a date. When her body is discovered in the remote and forbidding Mitsuse Mountain Pass, Kiago is immediately put in the frame. Then, when his friends admit he’s been missing for several days, there seems little doubt that he must be the murderer.

However, as events unfold, Kiago’s role in Yoshino’s murder isn’t as quite clear cut as first thought — but to say more would spoil the plot.

Troubled characters

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the ways in which different characters react to the crime: the two men accused go to ground, but when one of them is cleared, he turns boastful; the victim’s father becomes incredibly angry and wants revenge, while his wife becomes an emotional mess and cannot function properly; Yuichi’s grandmother finds herself caught between defending her grandson and protecting herself from a blackmailing scam she’s become caught up in; and an additional character, Mitsuyo, a department store worker, finds herself falling in love with the alleged perpetrator and goes on the run with him.

Their stories, their emotional and inner turmoil, are told using various viewpoints — third person and first person — which can, occasionally, be confusing, but this narrative structure gives the reader a well-rounded picture of a group of people struggling to readjust to life after the murder.

It also provides a fascinating portrait of life in Japan. It may just be the lower class portrayed here, but everyone seems obsessed by three things: food (there’s endless descriptions of it), sex (many of the characters visit “love hotels” and one is a prostitute) and consumer goods as status symbols (cars in particular). All the young people are working lowly paid or menial jobs and the women are doing all they can to find good husbands. I got the feeling that almost everyone in this novel felt alienated from the people they loved and the world in general (a common theme, I’ve noticed, in other Japanese books I’ve read). It’s a bleak picture, tinged by criminality, poverty and despair.

Detached prose style

The book is written in clear, lucid prose in the kind of flat, detached style I’ve come to expect from Japanese crime novels (interestingly, the author translated it himself). It’s a style I generally like, but I found my interest in the story waning the further I got into it. I think the lack of central narrator with which to identify (and cheer on) may have had something to do with this.

It didn’t help that many characters had similar names, which I found confusing, and I simply didn’t care enough about any of them to want to keep reading, so getting to the end of this novel became a bit of a hard slog.

That said, Villain is a rather thought-provoking book and I’ve come away from it not quite sure who the real villain was, something I suspect the author wanted to achieve. To what extent is the murderer the villain, because surely there are other factors at play? Was his upbringing to blame? Should the person who put the victim in a dangerous situation but not commit the murder take responsibility? Or is the victim to blame?

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.