The other day I was looking on Facebook and noticed that the book club that I belong to, but haven’t attended in months, was hosting a discussion session on a day that I could actually attend. And that day happened to be in two days’ time. And I’d never even heard of the book that was going to be discussed. Oh, and that book was approximately 300 pages long, a translation, and a cerebral read. So like any semi-sane person, I decided to download it on my resurrected Kindle Touch and read it in approximately eight hours straight (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It was seven hours straight, with an extra hour the day before).
Though my vision swam for a good half hour afterwards, I am glad that I read The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander.
This book is a well-written (and well-translated–congrats Smith and Alexander!) murder mystery. Except you already know from the beginning whodunnit and why (aside from a juicy reveal that I never saw coming), and it takes place from several different viewpoints. There’s the head detective Kusanagi, the consultant/physics researcher Yukawa, the damsel in distress Yasuko (who also happens to have killed her ex-husband), and the mathematician Ishigami (who comes to the aid of Yasuko). Since you know who did it, who covered it up (but not how), and why, the joy in this story is reading the dance of steps between Yukawa and Ishigami as the one seeks to uncover the killer and the other seeks to hide it. And Kusanagi is a formidable foe to Ishigami as well. Unlike other consulting detective novels, Kusanagi is no bumbling police detective. He is working hard to solve this case, though he lacks one piece of crucial evidence–a history with the suspect. Yukawa knew Ishigami in school, which means that he knows how Ishigami thinks and can detect when something is not quite right.
A good mystery rises and falls on the believability of the characters and the case. Keigo Higashino does an excellent job of building up the main characters, adding complexity, and having them act in ways that falls perfectly in line with who they are. Ishigami, particularly, is interesting. He is a mathematician who loves only math and Yasuko. He is hyper-observant and completely logical and able to analyze and solve seemingly impossible scenarios. So when the “girl next door” kills her ex-husband while defending her daughter’s life, he devises what he determines to be the perfect plan to cover up her involvement. It’s fascinating to see how differently Ishigami thinks from other people, but it’s not in such a way that it’s unbelievable. We all know someone who is at least a little like Ishigami, and Keigo Higashino does an excellent job of unveiling this ultra-logical yet love-smitten personality for us.
This book also provides interesting moral dilemmas. I know that self-defense is an option in the US, but I’m not sure about the laws in Japan. In the book, after Yasuko kills her husband, she decides the only option is to turn herself in. There’s no thought about, “Oh, it was self-defense. You’ll be okay. It was self-defense.” It was, “I must turn myself in because that is what is right. I’ve done wrong, I’ve killed someone, and now I must turn myself in.” That is, until Ishigami steps in. In my discussion group, we talked about whether or not, if a legal system is flawed, it is right to hide someone’s acts. Plus, there’s still a little bit of ambiguity. Was Yasuko truly in the right when she killed her ex-husband? Was he going to kill her daughter, or “just” beat her senseless and leave? How far is too far? In the moment, Yasuko had the upper hand, but if she had given that up would her ex have turned on her, and would she be the one lying dead on the ground?
I think the best books leave things complex and open to discussion. It makes the book stick around longer in the reader’s head, mulling things over, trying to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. This is the first mystery novel I’ve read where it wasn’t black and white, where the killer may have been justified, where the killed was scummy, if not completely scum. Usually in this genre the good die and the murderer is completely twisted. Not so with this book. And so, this book will stick with me for quite a while.
Thank you, Keigo Higashino, for this fantastic book. And thank you, Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander, for doing justice in the translation.