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.

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

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.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!


Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

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.