SOMETIMES the truly astonishing thing about surprise revelations is the fact that they surprise you at all. Why should the portrayal of an everyday Tokyo, similar to that of any other busy metropolis anywhere else in the world, throw me off? My first and major exposure to Japan has been through the novels of Haruki Murakami, and wonderful as those books are, they are hardly primers in Japanese life. Murakami makes mystical and magical Japan seem so very normal that when one comes across a more regular version of the country, one can’t help but remark upon it.
However, the setting is the only thing remotely mundane in Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. The plot is perhaps one of the most devious that I have ever read and the twist at the end (you know there is one), whops you on the skull with its simplicity and brilliance. It is a massive bestseller in Japan where it sold over 2 million copies since it was published in 2005, and has even been made into a cult film. The English translation which released early this year, then arrived to many elevated expectations, and I can safely say that they have all been met.
This is the story of a single mother Yasuko and her daughter Misato, living next door to a high school mathematics teacher, Ishigami. Their tranquil existence is turned upside down when Yasuko’s ex-husband Togashi turns up at her workplace and follows her home. She tells him to go away, he refuses and matters quickly escalate to the point where mother and daughter find that they have a dead man in their living room. It’s not a situation they feel equipped to deal with, but fortunately their neighbour Ishigami knows what to do. Until now, they have barely exchanged any words with each other, but the quiet, reclusive math teacher seems to have a crush on Yasuko and that makes him help her, rather than turn her in to the police. He has what seems like a foolproof plan, one that is designed to hold up against relentless police interrogation, should Togashi’s body be discovered and identified.
But of course, Ishigami’s genius comes up against the vast intellect that is Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor and friend and ‘consultant’ to Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police. Kusanagi himself is no bungling Scotland Yard-type cliché – he’s smart and intuitive. How well does Ishigami’s story hold up against the combined power of the Yukawa and Kusanagi? It is this question that makes this novel such a compulsive page-turner.
This novel, apart from the stunning denouement, is remarkable for two other things. One is the fantastic Ishigami – a man who has clearly done something criminal, and yet you find yourself rooting for him. You wonder why you’re rooting for this man, because apart from the unconditional help he seems to be offering his neighbours, he’s not a traditionally appealing character. He’s middle-aged, alone, ugly and lacking in social skills. He’s a classic loner, and sometimes his attraction to Yasuko borders on the obsessive and then you begin to wonder: is he the protagonist or the antagonist? This delicious ambiguity about Ishigami and his motives keep you powering through the novel.
In fact, nobody’s motives are ever really clever in this novel, and that is the other remarkable thing here. The Devotion of Suspect X is a wonderful example of how a writer can make human behaviour, and not the crime itself, the crux of the mystery. There’s no percentage in focusing on the crime in a whydunit of this type: we already know who did the crime. That is why it becomes important to focus on how people involved with the crime behave and why. So here, we wonder – are Ishigami’s reasons for helping Yasuko truly selfish or does he expect a quid pro quo? Why does Yasuko let a relative stranger take control of her crime and in effect, allow for the possibility of blackmail in the future? Why does Yukawa refuse to help the police even though it’s clear he knows exactly what happened? The murder itself is merely an excuse to understand human behaviour.
This is a really fast read – if you’re anything like me, you’ll stay up late and finish it in one sitting. Even if you aren’t usually the type to read thrillers or mysteries, I would recommend this book to you. See if it doesn’t keep you awake past bedtime!
- The Devotion of Suspect X, By Keigo Higashino (independent.co.uk)