Translated by Alexander O. SmithAnd 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.