The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Review copy courtesy WordFest

And now for something completely different: A KfC review of a murder mystery, translated from the Japanese.

Regular visitiors here will be aware that mystery/crime is not my genre: in 26 months, this blog has reviewed only two (the first parts of Patricia Highsmith’s five-book Ripley series). Searching the blog for my experience with Japanese fiction would be even more fruitless: unlike many readers who have found value there, I don’t think I have ever before read a book translated from the Japanese. (I have nothing against Japanese fiction, just never been moved to try it.) So I haven’t just moved outside my comfort zone with this novel, I found myself in a couple of zones that are virtually unknown to me.

Some back story is required to explain how I got there. I have been involved with WordFest, the Banff-Calgary author’s festival, almost since its inception more than 15 years ago. I was on the board of directors some years ago and since then have maintained a connection as one of their “readers”, supplying thoughts on books by authors whom they are considering inviting to the new festival. (You can check out WordFest’s website here.) The festival’s new executive director, Jo Steffens, dropped by recently to introduce herself — and brought along an Advance Reading Copy of The Devotion of Suspect X.

Despite not being my usual fare, the promotional material on the ARC sparked my curiosity. Minotaur Books, the publisher, says that Higashino is Japan’s “biggest best-selling novelist”, that more than 2 million copies of this novel have sold in Japan and that it won the Naoki Prize (which they say is Japan’s equivalent of the National Book Award). Not just that, the press run for the first printing of this North American version is 75,000 — an amazing figure for an author not known here. Loyal WordFest “reader” that I am, it seemed worth at least a scan of the first few pages. One day and almost 300 pages later, I finished the book, delighted and intrigued by the experience.

The Devotion of Suspect X has five central characters, three on the crime side, two crime “solvers”. Let’s start with the criminal ones (this isn’t a spoiler — it all happens in the first 26 pages).

Yasuko Hanaoka is a former nightclub hostess who now works in a small shop selling boxed lunches. She and her teenage daughter, Misato, live nearby — since divorcing her abusive former husband, Togashi, (he was client at the nightclub) the two have moved several times to try to escape him. He shows up early in the book, apparently looking for reconciliaton or, failing that, money. He follows her home and, after an angry exchange with Yasuko, turns his rage on his step-daughter who hits him over the head with a copper flower vase.

Then [Togashi] leapt astride her, grabbing her long hair and striking the side of her face with his right hand. “I’m gonna kill you, you little bitch!” he roared.

He is going to kill her, Yasuko thought. He really is going to kill her–

Still on her knees, Yasuko looked around frantically. The electrical cord snaking from beneath the kotatsu caught her eye. She reached over, grabbed it and yanked it out of the socket. The other end was still attached to a corner of the kotatsu top. She stood, making a loop out of the cord in her hand.

She stepped behind Togashi where he sat atop her daughter, hitting her repeatedly, howling in blind anger. She slipped the loop over his head and pulled with all her strength.

It takes a while, but Togashi is soon no longer with us and mother and daughter face the daunting prospect of what to do next. That’s when the third member of the crime side, Ishigami, comes into play. We have met him at the start of the book: he lives in the apartment next door, he is a high school mathematics teacher, squat and ugly, who buys a lunch box at the shop every day Yasuko is there. He doesn’t show up on her days off and the owners have been teasing her that she has attracted an admirer.

The killing of Togashi has been rather noisy and, while mother and daughter are contemplating their dilemma, the phone rings.

Yasuko steadied her breath, then lifted the receiver to her ear and pressed the talk button. “Yes? Hello? Hanaoka speaking.”

“Um, hi. It’s Ishigami, from next door.”

Yasuko stared stupidly at the phone. It’s that teacher again. What could he possibly want this time? “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Erm, well, actually, I was wondering what you were going to do.”

Yasuko had no idea what he meant. “I’m sorry, about what?”

“Just, well,–” Ishigami paused before continuing. “If you were going to call the police, well that’s fine, I’ll say nothing about it. But if you weren’t, then I was thinking there might be something I could do to help.”

I’ve gone on at more length (and with longer quotes) than I should in setting up the story, but there is a reason. One of the distinguishing — indeed intriguing — qualities of The Devotion of Suspect X is that reading it is a novelistic version of reading the libretto of an opera. Both in story line and prose, there is an icy, almost simplistic, formality — the author demands of the reader a willingness to accept some very unlikely story developments (and equally formal, unrealistic language). (I don’t think that is a translation issue. It may well be a characteristic of Japanese fiction — my own lack of exposure leaves me unqualified to comment.) Like opera, however, the result is what I’ll call “literary theatre”. The stylization and simplificaton of the story and the voice may seem forced, but it is done to introduce the reader to an understanding of the underlying emotions and elements that drive both.

That tension comes into play when the two crime “solvers” are introduced. Kusangi is the lead detective on the case — his friend, Yukawa, is a physics professor with whom Kusangi regularly discusses cases. As it happens, Yukawa and Ishigami were classmates at the Imperial University, each with exceptional promise (albeit in the different fields of physics and mathematics). Yukawa is a bit of an amateur sleuth and becomes intrigued by this particular case and the involvement of his former classmate and friend. Author Higashino uses that device to add an entirely new layer to his story — the different nature of practical physics and theoretical mathematics, the classical problems in each field and how those problems and the investigation of their solution might play out when applied to real world crime (I warned you of the operatic nature of the plot).

In fact, Higashino introduces one of mathematics (and physics) classical “unsolved” problems as an over-arching theme of the story when Ishigami and Yukawa have their first meeting in the book:

“You’re familiar with the P=NP problem, right?” Yukawa asked from behind him.

Ishigami looked around. “You’re referring to the question of whether or not it is as easy to determine the accuracy of another person’s results as it is to solve the problem yourself — or, failing that, how the difference in difficulty compares. It’s one of the questions the Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a prize to solve.”

Obviously, this is not your routine murder mystery, be it in English or Japanese. You don’t need to know complex mathematics to be able to understand it, but the way that both Ishigami and Yukawa apply their science to the crime (or its solution) grows in importance as the book moves on. This reader came to appreciate that the stylized plot development was an important part of that structure — and the seemingly strained narrative and dialogue were a deliberate version of the simple “elegance” that mathematicians and physicists demand of their proofs.

So I would conclude that my venture into two different worlds outside my reading “comfort zone” was highly successful. There is a mental and emotional depth to this book that would be almost impossible to capture in a conventional narrative. I can’t say that I am eagerly awaitiing Higashino’s next translated book, but I am delighted to have been introduced to this one — which I freely admit I would never have found on my own.

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32 Responses to “The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Perhaps this marks a new trend as you move towards crime. Reading crime that is.

  2. Craig D. Says:

    Oh, son of a bitch. Another book to add to my TBR list.

    At this rate, I’ll read this one sometime around 2036.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Well it is true that I have the first four of Camilleri’s Mountalbano novels. Ordered for Mrs. KfC but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t read them.

    Craig: It is a very quick read once you adapt to the rather different phrasing and pace.

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’m another one who doesn’t read crime, and I haven’t read much Japanese writing either, though I have Murakami on my TBR and will surely get to it one day.
    I used to read the occasional Donna Leon and Shane Maloney but then I read one of those horrible blood-spattered American things (Somebody George? Ruth Rendell?) and haven’t touched the genre since. (Unless you count Baudolino, and I don’t).
    *frown* I think I might be getting set in my ways LOL maybe this means I am getting old at last!

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I read a lot of crime novels, but tend to steer away from the blockbusters and go for the more “literary” end of the market. This book sounds like it would fit the bill perfectly.

    I’ve not read a great deal of Japanese fiction, but the ones I have read have all tended to be crime fiction, specifically Natsuo Kirino, who is very, very dark.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, Kim: One of the reasons that I don’t read much crime fiction is that Mrs. KfC and I do enjoy crime DVDs, particularly Brit and European tv series (Rebus, Prime Suspect, Morse, Montalbano) — we buy whole sets and then settle in for marathons. So the prospect of taking reading time to add to that, instead of exploring other options, is not really attractive. And I do think good actors add very much to the character, which is why we tend towards series rather than movies.

    Having said that, I do like “literary” crime (that’s how I’d characterize Highsmith) when I do pick it up. And I certainly read Chandler and Hammett in my youth and have versions on hand now which I intend to get back to some time and see how they land now.

    As for Japanese fiction, I don’t think I’ve ever found the “hook” that would bring me in. A lot of readers seem to be like Lisa — they have Murakami on hand but haven’t got to him yet. Perhaps more ominous for me are the readers who have read a lot of Japanese fiction. Once they start in, they leave the impression that it would be a continuous five-year reading project just to get onto the ground.

  7. Craig D. Says:

    KFC: If you do decide to revisit Hammett, you’re in for a treat. I read him years ago, liked him but didn’t fall in love with him, but then about two years ago I picked up the Library of America volume of his five novels, and he seemed better than ever. Of course, that says as much about my constantly changing opinions as it does about Hammett, but I strongly recommend him regardless. He’s actually pretty similar to Highsmith, in the simplistic writing style and the shady morality of the protagonists. “Red Harvest” in particular is great, but they’re all good. Also, it’s another creature entirely, but Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are really a blast.

    Speaking of Japanese writers, I’ve had Hideaki Sena’s “Parasite Eve” on my TBR list forever. The reviews have been less than terrific, but the plot interests me enough to give it a try. And considering the fact that I’ve had Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” on my shelf for three years and haven’t touched either one, I expect to get around to it approximately never.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: We seem to share a common response/anticipation to Japanese fiction. I’d like to explore it, but just how big a Pandora’s box am I opening if I do?

    As for Hammett (and Chandler for that matter), I am fully aware that once I start re-exploring, it will only be the opening of a longish experience. And I will probably have to add into it the movie versions of the novels that I read. I’m looking forward to the prospect, but don’t mind waiting a while before I begin it.

  9. Craig D. Says:

    For me it’s not a Pandora’s box, just my own procrastination. I’m such a slow reader (due to an undiagnosed learning/reading disorder that I suspect is dyslexia — imagine how slow a reader you would be if you had to read the same sentence five times), and I always have bookmarks in so many books at once; right now I’m in the middle of a Highsmith Ripley novel, Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” an H. P. Lovecraft story, biographies of Bobby Fischer and Vlad the Impaler, a John W. Campbell story, Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”, Scott Smith’s “The Ruins,” and a novelization that I’m slightly embarrassed to be reading. This, in addition to all the bullshit I read online for hours every day, all the movies I watch, and my lack of disposable income, contributes to my never getting around to a damned thing.

  10. Lisa Hill Says:

    Well, I don’t want to bring down the wrath of crime aficionados LOL, but I want to agree with you about the literary qualities of the genre. IMO there is a huge difference between reading something really satisfying like An Instance of the Fingerpost or Baudolino (and The Talented Mr Ripley on my TBR), and the stuff that is marketed as crime. I could list a bunch of writers that I wouldn’t bother with but it wouldn’t be fair because I haven’t read any of ‘em, and have no plans to. I can tell by the book cover that they would bore me to sobs, and having an exotic location wouldn’t cut it for me. I learned that from the Donna Leons I used to read, after a while they all became the same.
    As for TV I quite like something amusing like New Tricks or Midsomer Murders but all the rest of it doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t care whodunnit, or why, and if there is any character development in it, I don’t care about that either. I’m not fascinated by underbelly or serial killer motivations or murderous nut cases; I’m fascinated by what makes ‘normal’ people behave in the ways they do. What fascinates me in New Tricks is how Esther lives with an obsessive-compulsive; and why Jack Halford maintains that shrine in the garden. I suspect that there’s a whole blog post on this topic, but I’d have to read some crime to do it, and I can’t be bothered!

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Having just watched two episodes of Rebus (from the Ian Rankin novels) and two more of Lovejoy, I have to be careful about putting down crime/mystery writers. Most are not to my taste and I’m not that interested in trying to figure out whodunit. But some people are and more power to them — different tastes for different people, I’ve always said. And I do think that some authors use the genre in a very literary fashion to create some excellent work. I certainly found that this novel had me amused from the start (since we know who did it) and increasingly interested as it unfolded and I discovered that the author had created a very different story from what first appeared (that’s a spoilerish hint, rather than a spoiler itself). He couldn’t have done that with a love story or “normal” strategy, so I would have to say he found the right context for his book.

  12. Lisa Hill Says:

    Yes, and this is the hard part: finding the ‘literary’ ‘crime novel’ because it’s so hard to define.
    Ah well, it’s not as if I’m short of things to read LOL.
    PS I have finally figured out the iTunes thingy and have downloaded the Pablo Cassals Cello suites, all ready for when I finish my current non-fiction book and start The Cello Suites. In the meantime I am playing them almost nonstop and getting to know them, I am so grateful to you and Trevor (I forget who blogged the book first, sorry) for bringing this book to my attention.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I remember The Cello Suites with great fondness. In fact, every time I play them now (and that is fairly often) it takes me back to the book — too soon for a reread, but it will come.

    If you can find a decently-priced version of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier download it as well. Alas, the cello suites aren’t long enough to take you all the way through the book as background music. He makes fairly frequent reference to the clavier pieces and they serve equally well.

    And for those who wonder what Lisa and I are talking about, here’s a link to my review of The Cello Suites, a truly excellent book.

  14. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, I love murder mysteries–books or TV shows–provided they’re more than the usual plot driven drivel that is usually available.

    You mentioned Rebus, Morse, etc.–you might be interested in the Wallander series by Henning Mankell. He’s a tremendously successful Swedish author who’s uses crime stories to address social issues like the rise of racism in Sweden for example.

    The interesting thing about the Wallander series is that you can read the books (translated from the Swedish) or watch the TV series starring Kenneth Branagh. I prefer the TV series because Branagh is so adept at conveying Wallander’s shortcomings (drink, divorce, difficult father) in the context of the Swedish police procedural. Not an easy thing given the “otherness” of the setting. It’s like staying in a European business hotel and noticing that things seem a little off.

    I know crime procedurals and murder mysteries aren’t your thing, but thanks for this review, hopefully you’ll do some more.

  15. anokatony Says:

    Not on the Murakami bandwagon yet? He is exceptionally good, not genre at all, but literary. My favorite Murakami is ‘Norwegian Wood’, with the rest close behind.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: You’ve probably captured my hesitation with “bandwagon”. Certainly I have read positive comments about Murakami and I imagine that I will get to him sometime. At the moment, other avenues just seem to be more interesting.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Susan: The Wallander DVD’s have been recommended before and noted — we will give them a try.

  18. Kerry Says:

    Crime fiction generally is not my thing either. My wife enjoys it and I take dips for some common ground (and change of pace). But it is not easy to find “crime fiction” that suits us both. I think Highsmith’s Ripley series might be one of those. This sounds like another possibility. I recently gave her a Leonardo Sciascia (Italian) which she liked, but I am not sure another of his would be the best book-gift for her. But, this one has possibilities!

    I do give her other gifts too…

    And, Kimbofo has intrigued me with Natsuo Kirino. Dark is good. Very good.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I’d be interested in your wife’s impression, if she does read it. I certainly found elements that sparked my curiosity — mainly the math and physics aspect. Given your recent exposure to a similar theme (sorry, I forget the specific title right now) I think you might share that impression. Higashino definitely takes the book to a different plane when he introduces that angle.

  20. Craig D. Says:

    For those who aren’t into crime fiction, I would recommend renting (especially if you have a Netflix account) the better movies based on crime classics to test the waters. It’s less of an investment in both time and money to watch “The Maltese Falcon” than it is to read Hammett’s novel, so if you don’t like it, no big loss. I’ve used this method to ease people into Highsmith and Philip K. Dick. It’s hard to get someone to buy a copy of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and read it, but it’s much easier to get them to watch “Purple Noon” or “Blade Runner.” And after they do that, I don’t need to convince them to read the books; those films did the work for me.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Some genres blur at the edges with literary fiction more than others. Historical fiction is one and crime is another.

    After all, crime fiction at the better end is often fiction about character. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from that to literary fiction. The best crime is also literary fiction in my view. I’m thinking here Chandler, McIlvanney, writers like that.

    Most crime of course isn’t literary fiction and doesn’t want to be.

    Anyway, this sounds a little too operatic for me. My crime tastes tend to be for more down to earth stuff. It’s curious, the knowledge it was a bestseller in Japan would have deterred me. Were I Japanese reading a US/UK bestseller would lead me to Dan Brown, John Grisham and Andy McNabb and I’ve done nothing to deserve that.

    The Wallander episodes I’ve seen were good but a bit far fetched. I think you’d enjoy them Kevin but I thought the plots could generally have benefitted from being a little more low key. Oh, Wallander’s town (I forget its name) is like Morse’s Oxford. It’s a small place with a murder rate higher than South Central LA. It’s just one of those things one has to accept since otherwise Wallander would spend his time arresting drunks in the high street and the occasional shoplifter which could be less dramatic.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Your point about the Japanese sales figures being a disincentive is well-taken — if I had come across this book in a store, I would have had exactly the same response. On the other hand, when someone brings it to the house that becomes curiosity. When I opened the book, I fully expected to be closing it again after a scan of 30 pages or so — the author obviously managed to strike a chord with me. And I certainly agree that “crime” hardly eliminates a book from being “literary” (sure would have cut into Dickens audience if it did).

    On the DVD front, I did order the Wallander series yesterday. After all, we watch Midsomer Murders and the murder rate there makes South Central LA look like nothing. We also started another Italian crime series last night — The Octopus (i.e. Mafia), which started in 1984 and ran for 18 seasons (although the English-subtitled) DVD didn’t get done until 2010). It is set in Sicily and might appeal given your Naples experience. Mrs. KfC says she has no trouble following the Italian in it and I find both the story and setting most interesting.

  23. Max Cairnduff Says:

    When a chord’s struck it’s struck. Sometimes books are massively popular because they’re populist in nature. Sometimes though they’re popular just because they’re good (and sometimes of course they’re both populist and good).

    I’ve heard of The Octopus. It’s supposed to be pretty good as I recall. On a foreign-language crime DVD note have you seen the French series Spiral? That’s worth catching.

    Midsomer Murders. That’s famous for its heavy death toll. The Shield is Sesame Street by comparison.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Given my extensive, one-book experience in Japanese crime fiction, I would have to say that buyers there are much more inclined to what I would call literary than English-language readers are — which is a good indication why judgments should not be based on one book.

    Thanks for the pointer on Spiral. I will investigate.

    Part of the charm of Midsomer Murders is that in addition to featuring three murders in each episode, most all feature some version of a fete, festival, regatta or whatever, reminding us that country life may not be as idyllic as it is cracked up to be.

  25. Tom C Says:

    I am pleased that you say that we don’t need to know complex mathematics to understand this book. I DO read murder mysteries from time to time, and usually enjoy the relaxing break from the more serious stuff that comes across my desk. This one sounds interesting because of its Japanese setting and the sparseness of its language. I am now going to go and look if its available on Kindle at a reasonable price (unlikely I suppose!)

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: If you like the occasional murder mystery, I would recommend this one. It has enough “different” things to it that I think you find it worth the effort.

  27. Judy Says:

    I have just found your website via a link from kimbofo. Both of your reviews of The Devotion of Suspect X have whetted my appetite for a book that is far away from my usual reading. So thank you.

    And picking up on some references to the DVDs of the Wallander series. Do try the Swedish versions – much better than Kenneth Branagh trying to be a Swede. And if they attract you to Scandinavian crime, try The Killing, a brilliant Danish crime series.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Judy: As you can tell, this novel was outside my usual reading as well — but I am glad that I read it. Kimbofo’s review was a timely reminder of the plot, because I am afraid most of it had slipt my mind. That points towards an “escapism” label, but it is “good escapism” since most of the elements came readily to mind.

    As for Scandanavian DVD’s, I agree 100 per cent about the Swedish version of Wallander. Brannagh is a great actor, but the British series seems to miss the boat. Just last night we were watching a Norweigian entry, Varg Veum, which I very much recommend — conceptually dark with a good bit of symbolism. And while I’m at it, Irene Huss (also Swedish) was another excellent discovery for us in 2011.

    We don’t have anything from Denmark on our Danish crime shelf, so thanks very much for pointing me to The Killing. I will be checking out availability later this morning.

  29. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve been watching the Swedish Wallanders, and rather enjoying them. As you say, Branagh is a great actor but the original show is simply better.

    Series one of The Killing has had extraordinary reviews in the UK press. Series two is presently airing and seems not to be quote so much “must see” tv but still worth following. I haven’t caught season one yet but I do intend to.

    I see I already recommended Spiral above.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    What a strange coincidence, Max. While I was ordering The Killer DVDs this morning, I checked out the Amazon “others also ordered” and saw The Spiral and added it to the list. I’d forgotten your recommendation until this reminder — so I’m now looking forward to it even more. We don’t have a crime series set in Paris (let’s face it, the surrounding shots in television shows are part of the attraction) and Mrs. KfC is planning a trip there this year, so that’s another reason to look forward to it.

  31. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I hope you enjoy it.

    One I have on my to watch pile, but haven’t yet started, is another French crime series called Bracquo. I mention it so you’re aware of it. It’s supposed to be good but obviously I can’t vouch for it yet.

    What I can vouch for is the tv series of Romanzo Criminale. Originally a novel, then a film, there’s also a TV show made about the rise of a group of Roman gangsters in the 1970s and 1980s. The DVDs aren’t easy to find but there are subtitled copies available and season one was excellent. Genuinely gritty and gripping Italian crime drama.

  32. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the Romanzo Criminale info — I thought I’d hit the end of Italian language series and the chance to chase down another one is welcome. I can’t find a version with English subtitles but given that Sky has run it on air, you’d have to think one will show up reasonably soon. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for data about Bracquo as well.

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