Book #108: The Devotion of Suspect X (2005)

suspectxaka: Yougisha X no kenshin (容疑者Xの検診)
author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
language: English translated from Japanese
length: 440 pages
finished on: 16 July 2016

I had a busy day that day in July, having watched two movies and then finishing this book on the train on the way back home. Higashino seems to be an entry-level Japanese mystery novel writer, and one of the few who’s been translated into English too. The Devotion of Suspect X is a title that comes up repeatedly when searching for Higashino’s books. And it’s pretty cheap to buy second-hand, so I gave it a shot.

The book is about a woman who kills her abusive ex-husband, which is depicted at the beginning of the novel. Then she and her enigmatic neighbour try to cover up the murder, all the while being investigated by some Japanese Taggart. The neighbour is an introverted mathematician with a crush on the woman. I’m sorry I’m still no good at remembering character names, by the way! There’s a twist at the end, of course, when we find out what exactly really happened. There’s a certain level of unreliable narrator.

The book’s cover proudly proclaims Higashino to be the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”, which I think is a bit presumptuous. The Millennium trilogy was a tour de force in a way that this book just isn’t, but more importantly, Larsson more directly tackles themes such as misogyny and violence – hell, the first book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is literally called “Men Who Hate Women” in Swedish. None of that here – in fact, the mathematician guy has some of the creepiest inner thoughts about the woman (possessiveness just being the start) that I’ve ever seen put to paper, although we’re not necessarily encouraged to agree with him. The murder victim himself had elements of being abusive towards his wife, but it wasn’t explored in as much detail. This book isn’t anything bad, but I think this comparison is too lazy.

However, the story is easy to read, gripping, and I can see why it’s so popular. But it marks a break from what I’ve come to know as the detective story formula, popularized originally by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. In that, the identity of the killer is usually kept as a surprise, and Holmes or Poirot finally piece together the information right at the end. But in this one, the identity of the killer is known from the start, and that removed a lot of the tension. Instead, the nature of the mystery is a bit more esoteric. The detectives don’t know the identity of the killer, but I think the audience should be able to view the world through their eyes. In this we’re kind of omnipotent. This does allow us to see the thoughts of the “villains”, however, asking the alternative question, how will the two sides outsmart each other?

I did really enjoy the setting in Tokyo, as it was more immediately familiar to me than reading something set in America, or even the UK, which sometimes feels distant. Even so, the characters belong to a world I don’t, and it was a look at a side of Tokyo I wouldn’t normally see.

I think Higashino seems to be a very competent and eloquent author, and as I mentioned, the book was light and easy to read, although I think I was slightly disappointed with the story. Higashino was scuppered a bit by bad translation, however. Japanese is full of set phrases for greetings and so on, and the translators struggled to find appropriate ways to keep the English fresh-sounding. I kept wondering what the Japanese version would say – I don’t think I’d be able to read the whole thing, though. It’s a pretty difficult language to read, even after about five years. That aside, I think I will recommend this book overall, and perhaps seek out more Japanese mystery literature to see how it compares.

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