6/12/15

Like a Destroying Angel


"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
From all the Japanese mystery writers who clambered over the language barrier, Keigo Higashino appears to be one of the few who actually met with success and popularity on the other side.

A translation of an award winning and somewhat controversial novel, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), was published in 2011, which collected favorable reactions across the board – from readers of contemporary thrillers to fans of the traditional mystery novel. A translation of Akui (Malice, 1996) came out last year and a fourth translation is scheduled for 2016, but the second release has been languishing on my to-be-read pile ever since its release in 2012.

Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) is the second, novel-length entry in the Detective Galileo series and has a plot that frames an impossible poisoning as an inverted mystery, which occasionally channeled the spirit of Agatha Christie. There's even an eternal triangle at the core of the plot.

Yoshitaka Mashiba has one, fiery wish: to find a wife and have children. That's why Yoshitaka’s marriage to Ayane is made under the condition that she had to be pregnant within a year or he would divorce her. After nearly a year, it becomes obvious to Yoshitaka that the deadline won't be met and began to court Hiromi Wakayama. One of Ayane's students from quilting school. 

As the saying goes, "hell has no fury like a woman scorned." Ayane puts this piece of proverbial wisdom into practice by poisoning her husband, but the reader isn't show how she managed to spike the coffee with arsenous acid (i.e. arsenic) – while being miles away and surrounded by witnesses, that is. 

The initial investigation is for Police-Detective Kusanagi and his assistant, Koaru Utsumi, who go over the crime-scene and statements with a fine toothcomb, which makes for a pleasant police procedural reminiscent of Ten to Sen (Points and Lines, 1958) by Seicho Matsomoto

The police investigation focused mainly on how the coffee could've been poisoned, but every attempt at separating the essential facts from the side issues showed how frustrating a simple, straightforward looking poisoning can be. It's a complex and impossibly constructed house of cards, but its construction was as fun to watch as its destruction at the hands of Detective Galileo. 

Detective Galileo is the nickname of Manabu Yukawa, assistant professor of physics, who made his scientific mind available to Kusanagi in previous investigations, but it's Utsumi contacting the physicist – convinced Ayane used a trick to cover her tracks. As Yukawa observes, "criminal tricks are different from magic tricks," because the audience of a magician never has an opportunity to examine the stage where the illusions took place. However, "with a criminal trick, investigators can pore over every detail of the crime scene until they’re satisfied." Some trace always remains. 

Yukawa provides a delightful, false solution involving a time-delayed trick to release poison in a water kettle, but some readers will have a problem with swallowing down the final explanation. 

The explanation for the poisoning is as clever as it's original. The clues that were embedded in the characterization made it feel inevitable and I would place it in the same league as Ronald Knox's "Solved by Inspection," collected in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1990), but I would actually understand the people who would dismiss it on grounds of being unrealistic – because even I was there for a moment. 

However, the final chapters translated to a convincing argument for the reader to suspend their disbelief and I went along with it... willingly. 

What more can I say? Salvation of a Saint is a first-rate example of what the genre can produce when stories aren't dismissed for having something as vulgar as a plot. While Higashino's work is modern in appearance, it's the plotting that makes him closer to Western mystery writers of the past than from the present, but hey, lets not flog that horse again. Not now anyway. 
On a final note, the book slated for release next year is Manatsu no Hoteishiki (Midsummer’s Equation, 2011), but there's already a Dutch translation available. So I just might go for that edition instead of waiting for the English release in 2016 and reading it somewhere in 2019.

10 comments:

  1. In Japan, it seems like the Golden Age style of mystery had a revival as the dominant mode of telling a mystery story a few decades ago. Ho-Ling Wong has an interesting article on it "Ellery Queen Is Alive and Well and Living in Japan."

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    1. Yes, that revival in Japan is called the neo-orthodox movement, which began in the 1980s and it's about time we finally started feeling some of its effect over here.

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  2. Thanks TC - I have SUSPECT X on my TBR, though this sounds even better to me now - hmmm ...

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    1. I would recommend starting with The Devotion of Suspect X.

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  3. (Psst, het is Higashino, niet Higashima)

    I quite like this book. The trick is at the core, a very simple, and at the same time a very difficult one, but it works so well because how well Ayane was portrayed. Thematically, it's very similar to The Devotion of Suspect X though.

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    1. I'm an idiot, but it's fixed now.

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  4. Very farfetched solution. You'd have to be very patient not to mention an extremely nasty and risk taking murderer to do what the killer does in this book. I much preferred Malice over this one. I have yet to read The Devotion of Suspect X but I'm sure I'll get into it. I do like the way Higashino constructs his novels with the cat and mouse mind games between detective and murderer. And he ought to be commended for showing that it is still possible to write a truly baffling detective novel in the traditional mode, set it in modern times and not burden the story with an overload of forensic pathology and DNA evidence. I also think he has a chilling Highsmithian grasp on the dark side of human nature.

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    1. You perfectly summed up The Devotion of Suspect X with your last part about still being able to write in the traditional made in this era. I'm sure you'll enjoy that one.

      Yes, the solution is very farefatched and (logically) it might have been more convincing if it went wrong and took out the wrong target, but I appreciate the effort of being original.

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  5. I enjoyed The Devotion to Suspect X very much but didn't give this one, Salvation of a Saint much of a chance due to my impatience with the story but I want to give it another shot. I did like Malice but still his first translated book is the one I liked the most. I couldn't tell you why. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for his stories, I would still read them.

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  6. GREAT to see you guys still going strong in your readings. Just a shout out to say that the plotline of devotion of suspect x was cleverly changed to a genuine modern problem = camera phones in the hands of perverts in conservative societies and made into a series of highly successful movies in Malyalam, Tamil, Telugu Kannada and now Hindi by name Drishyam

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