Book # 28 The Devotion of Suspect X

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!

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Mysterious pasts and damaging loves in Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy

*Long post, with spoilers*

Gerald Candless wasn’t all that he claimed to be. He was a Booker Prize-winning, best-selling author, but he certainly wasn’t the man everyone thought he was. This shocking fact is unearthed when his daughter Sarah starts working on a memoir after his death, in Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. She isn’t the only person making discoveries about Gerald, though. His widow, Ursula, too is beginning to get some insight into why her marriage to him was, in private, such a colossal failure.

A mysterious past is a great hook for a suspense novel, and Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell, in fact) is very clever at unspooling the story at a deliberate but compelling pace. There are many things about Gerald that strike the reader as odd; for instance, his obsession with having a large family and his unhealthy devotion to his two daughters. Also mystifying is his total disregard for his wife. He doesn’t physically or verbally abuse her, but he emotionally cripples her. After the birth of their second daughter Hope, he completely stops having any intimate relations with her. He makes it obvious that he looks on Ursula as an inferior. It’s strange, because the reader might find Ursula to be on the passive side, but she’s never bad or undeserving of love. Perhaps, if her husband had shown her some support and love, she would have blossomed into a more vibrant personality.

But the worst thing that he does is turn her daughtesr against her. Not by telling them things about her, no – that’s not his way. Children are sensitive and they pick up behavioural signals so easily. Sarah and Hope see their beloved, indulgent, story-telling daddy treat their mother like she doesn’t matter and they do exactly that. Ursula feels hurt at first, but eventually she achieves some emotional distance. By the end of the book, Hope is no longer on speaking terms with her mother, but it’s not like Ursula cares. She has moved on.

Sarah, meanwhile, is working hard to uncover information about her father’s early life, a period she knows shockingly little about. Her initial sleuthing brings a startling fact to light: her father wasn’t always Gerald Candless. He adopted the name sometime just before he published his first book. What his original name was, who is family were and where they come from, and why he completely abandoned his former life – these are the questions that Sarah must find answers to.

Ruth Rendell, writer

Ruth Rendell (Image via Wikipedia)

I must confess that when I picked up The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, I had no idea who Barbara Vine is. I am a whodunit fan, but I have so far limited myself to Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a few random authors. It was only later that I found out that Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell. I had read a Rendell mystery back when I was 14 or 15, but it had disturbed me so deeply that I quickly blanked out even its name. And of course, I never picked up another Rendell, which is sad, because I believe I’m made of sterner stuff now and should be able to deal with the level of psychological perversion and brutality that exist in her novels. (I’m also the same person who was so devastated by the first season of Dexter that I refused to watch the next few seasons for a good long time. Yes, I’m that sensitive, but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the blurb on the back intrigued me. The book kept me up way past my bedtime on more than two nights in a row, and it had been a long time since that had happened to me. I found that although Rendell likes to dwell on details, she does so in an unobtrusive manner. She’s a master of atmosphere and mood. I found myself raging against Gerald, and even after I had guessed his secret and felt some sympathy for his situation, I found it hard to forgive him for ruining another’s life. In fact, the characters are all pretty compelling – and unsavoury in different ways — and I found myself reacting strongly to all of them. I wanted to shake Ursula out of her stupor, I wanted to yell at Gerald and I really, really wanted to give Hope a good slap across her pretty face. Sarah, I found, is the most bearable of the lot, as she’s the only one who shows some willingness to adapt her long-held notions. She realizes that her idolized Daddy was a person beyond the man who had always been there for her. She even manages to feel sympathy for her mother and discovers that she herself is quite the intellectual phony. These are all massive changes, but Sarah holds together well and comes across as the most mature character in the book. She’s easily my favourite thing about the book.

I also liked how sensitively Rendell has dealt with homosexuality in this book. It’s a big subject here – the key to the whole plot, in fact – and much is written about how homosexuals were vilified or put in prison for trying to pursue a lifestyle of their choice. You’ll guess by the end in what way it affects Gerald, but what will keep you going is the need to find out why.

Now the things that I didn’t like: I found it hard to believe that Gerald was such a good writer that he impressed both critics and the public. Excerpts from his books open each chapter and they’re insipid, to say the least. One example is this:

“It is an error to say the eyes have expression. Eyebrows and eyelids, lips, the planes of the face, all these are indicators of emotion. The eyes are merely coloured liquid in a glass”

Or read this:

“A man believes everything he reads in the newspapers until he finds an item about himself which is a web of lies. This makes him doubt, but not for long, and he soon reverts to his old faith in the printed word.”

The tone in these is stiff and rather ponderous. It’s a tone one expects to find in a novel of Victorian vintage, not in one that was published, and found great success, in the 60s and the 70s. It’s clear that while Rendell has found her own authorial voice, she finds it difficult to imitate or imagine another author’s voice.

Another thing which didn’t sit well with me was the bizarre subplot with Sarah and Adam Foley, who have brutal, degrading sexual encounters in parking lots and anonymous hotels. Sarah seems to enjoy wearing all the black leather and velvet and dark make-up, but what is the point of it all? Is it to show us how shattered and rudder-less Sarah is after her father’s death that she enjoys being abused and insulted by a man and then having sex with him? Perhaps, but I believe that not everyone who enjoys S&M is seeking to subconsciously punish themselves. In that sense, the use of S&M becomes a cliché, and a bad one at that.

I also disliked the end, when editor Robert Postle reads Romney’s manuscript and figures out that it is written by Gerald about himself.  Would it be that easy for an editor – no matter how close he was to one of his star writers – to know that? I’m not sure and that is why I think it would have made more sense for him to have rubbished the manuscript as a poor imitation of Gerald Candless’ work.

So would I recommend this book? Certainly, since it contains some riveting psychological explorations and is quite brutal in how it exposes human behaviour. It’s a nice, fat book with plenty of meandering explanations and ruminations, but don’t be put off by them. It’s a very, very fast read and perfect for a weekend at home.

Book #26 The Immortals of Meluha by Amish

If Amish’s purpose, while writing his Shiva Trilogy, was to present an Everyman, elevated to greatness by extraordinary circumstances, he has succeeded spectacularly. The Shiva we are introduced to in The Immortals of Meluha, the first book of the trilogy, is a Tibetan chieftain, whose home in the Himalayas is made uninhabitable by the constant assaults of the warring Pakritis. He’s looking for a way out of this miserable life, when fortunately, envoys arrive from a country called Meluha – well-known for it’s peaceful and highly developed ways – and invite Shiva and his tribe, the Gunas, to make their home with them. They’re promised good accommodation, fruitful occupations and a peaceful, conflict-free existence.  To Shiva it makes perfect sense to do so and so the Gunas move into the rich and powerful Suryavanshi kingdom of Meluha.

Once they arrive, though, the new immigrants find that there might be more to the Meluhans’ generous invitation.  When Shiva’s throat suddenly turns blue after he drinks a medicinal concoction, the reaction of the Meluhans is baffling, to say the least. He is immediately venerated as a Saviour, the ‘Neelkanth’ of legend who has arrived to save the Meluhans from disaster. Because, as it turns out, Meluha is not as perfect as it seems: the neighbouring kingdom of the Chandravanshis has evil designs on it and has teamed up with the evil, deformed Nagas to carry out terrorist attacks within the country. Shiva is initially reluctant to believe that he could be the Neelkanth and tries to convince his hosts of this. By the end of the book, however, he has fallen in love with the beautiful Sati and has come to have great faith in the ways of Meluha. He is convinced of his duties towards his adoptive country and even though he’s still squeamish about the heroic status bestowed on him, Shiva acquits himself well when hostilities break out between the Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis.

However, the situation is more complicated than Shiva, or we the readers anticipate, and it is when he’s revealing the complex relationship between the two kingdoms that Amish really shines. I had started reading this book believing that I knew how it would all proceed, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that Amish had worked hard to ensure that the story would go along unexpected lines.  In fact, the greatest compliment that I can pay this book is by saying that I am very eager to start reading the second book in the trilogy, The Secret of the Nagas.

seal discovered during excavation of the Mohen...

The Pashupati Seal (Image via Wikipedia)

There are two things really that work in Amish’s favour. One is the complete mystery surrounding what we call the Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished between 3300 BC and 1900 BC, and our fascination with it. Excavations have revealed the striking uniformities through the length and breadth of the geographical area covered by it, and massive public structures as well as grid planning of the cities and a comprehensive drainage system. There’s also evidence that inhabitants traded with the Mesopotamian civilization and that they had developed a sophisticated system for weights and measures. But we have no idea who these people really were and where they came from and how they achieved such marvellous heights of civilization. We know they had developed their own script, but we have no way of deciphering those weird symbols. They must have had some sort of religion and culture, but again, we’re at a loss to know what these were. And the biggest mystery of all is – what happened to this once-great civilization? All evidence suggests that it came to an abrupt end, but we don’t know what that is. Amish has cleverly used this blind spot in Indian history to speculate and has created the fictitious kingdom of Meluha. He’s done a splendid job of it too, using our existing knowledge about the period, such as the almost obsessive-compulsive attention to uniformity – down to the bricks used across the geographical area –  and the platforms on which many of the cities seem to have been built. He’s embellished history with myth, taking chunks out of Vedic narratives and transposing them into a much earlier period. His contention is that it’s quite possible that the Vedic gods worshipped by ‘Aryan’ immigrants from Central Asia and Europe were actually historical figures from the Indus Valley Civilization. In fact, some historians have speculated that the mysterious figure, seated cross-legged, found on a seal from the era, is the prototype for Shiva. This ‘Pashupati’ seal, as it is called, is often furnished as prime evidence by those who believe that the Indus Valley Civilization didn’t die; it just transformed in nature.

The other thing that has worked well for Amish is our love for the pot-smoking, tandav-dancing, dreadlocked Lord Shiva. He’s often described as the ‘Rockstar’ of the Gods, for his unapologetic disdain for civilized conduct. His hair is a matted pile through which even the river Ganga wandered for seven years before she could find a way down to earth, and his body is smeared with ash. He is the leader of ghosts, demons, witches and other outcasts and his only garment is a tiger skin draped around his waist. But he can also be benevolent, should his disciples pray long and hard enough. He’s a powerful deity and is considered by many to be the Supreme God, or Mahadev.

Amish has taken this fearsome personality and turned him into a human being who is a little impulsive and not quite soignée, but who is approachable and has his heart in the right place. And there starts the trouble. The heroic, brave, intelligent, handsome and lovelorn protagonist of The Immortals of Meluha is a pale shadow of the Shiva we worship. For Lord Shiva, heroism means casually drinking a poison that threatens to destroy the world and not worry much when his throat turns blue. He’s also the same God who beheaded his father in a fit of rage and then wandered the earth as a beggar, driven insane with guilt, until he found salvation in Varanasi. For Meluha’s Shiva, guilt comes from not helping a woman in trouble.  The latter is not any less heinous, but you can see which would be the sin that animates legend.

Shiva and Parvati as depicted in a painting

Shiva and Parvai (Image via Wikipedia)

And then we come to the topic of love, of course. While Meluha’s Shiva is a lovelorn Romeo, Lord Shiva of myth and legend is the Heathcliff who lets nothing get between him and his woman. His volcanic passion and consuming love for his consort Parvati is scary, to say the least, but it’s equally fascinating. In fact, one of my favourite Shiva stories goes that the Gods are worried that Shiva’s honeymoon with Parvati is going on for too long – many months, in fact. It is this passionate, eccentric Shiva who has been turned into a ‘normal’ human being for the Shiva Trilogyand I’m not entirely happy about it. Do we really need to ‘normalize’ a personality whose very appeal lies in his eccentricities of mythic proportions and wildly swinging moods?Ultimately, Meluha’s Shiva is little more than an assembly-line hero and his coming of age is not particularly convincing. We never really see this Shiva struggle. Right at the start of the book, we’re told that he’s fighting the Pakritis, but after one brief battle, this part of his life is closed for good. Thereafter, his growth as a person is limited to accepting the fact that he could, after all, be the Neelkanth. Does he learn anything new about his strengths and more importantly, his weaknesses? Not really. Even his love story is a poor imitation of the epic love that Lord Shiva had for Parvati. Riddled with clichés about how his life would be empty without her, Shiva comes across more like a schoolboy with a massive crush, than as a grown man who feels an overwhelming passion for a grown woman. Frankly, I have seen better romance in Yash Raj Films.

Of course, like I said before, Amish is capable of throwing the occasional curve ball, and I’m hoping that in the Secret of the Nagas, he has fine-tuned his interpretation of Shiva, and brought in an unexpected touch. I would hate is if someone as gloriously mad as Lord Shiva were to be translated into a less convincing fantasy fiction hero than Bilbo Baggins.

The Desperate Reader

Cover of "A Visit from the Goon Squad"

Cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad

I have signed up for a challenge that once seemed impossible: to read 10 books in one month. In the old days of employment, I would barely manage to fit in four books a month, and even then, I couldn’t say that I read more than two of them with any great focus or enjoyment. But, since life is short and I have a ‘To Be Read’ list as long as the Bandra-Worli Sea-link, I took on this challenge officially. And If I don’t manage to meet this challenge head on and make it say ‘uncle’, may there be egg on my face. For purposes of full disclosure, below is a list of the books I intend to read, not counting Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I began reading at the end of last month.

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
The Secret of the Nagas by Amish
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Beast by Syed Muhammad Ashraf
Inez by Carlos Fuentes
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
The Middleman by Shankar
My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead ed. by Jeffrey Eugenides
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron by Jai Arjun Singh