Saturday, March 26, 2011

Murder Japanese Style

Mystery writers in Japan enjoy a wide audience. Translations of well-known western writers in the genre fill shelves of Japanese bookstores, but most of the readership is given to a homegrown list of Japanese writers who crowd the bestseller lists. For years writers like Seichô Matsumoto, Jirô Akagawa and Natsuo Kirino have been writing books that achieve blockbuster sales in the murder mystery vein. It all started with Edogawa Rampo (a playful rendering of Edgar Allan Poe) sometime in the 1920s, whose ‘mysteries’ caught the attention of young readers. Jirô Akagawa was my first turn at a Japanese style murder mystery but struggles with the language probably dulled my appreciation of his story. Some time later I came upon another mystery writer in English translation and was floored. The impact of Natsuo Kirino’s 1997 mystery Out was so strong that I read it a second time in the same week.

Currently, one of the top-selling names in Japanese mystery writing is Keigo Higashino. He won the Mystery Writers of Japan award for a 1999 book titled Himitsu (The Secret) and after five earlier nominations, in 2006 he won the Naoki Prize for his novel, Yôgisha X no Kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X), which became the second highest selling book—fiction or non-fiction—in Japan. The Naoki is roughly equivalent to the National Book Award or The Man Booker Prize. In 1985 Higashino quit his engineering job at 27 after the success of his first book, Hôkago (After School), a book that won the Edogawa Rampo Prize, awarded annually to the year’s finest mystery book. Since then he has written thirteen bestsellers.

Browsing in Borders last week I came across a just released English translation of his prize winning book, The Devotion of Suspect X. I bought the book without a moment’s hesitation, hungry for some Japanese-style murder, familiar settings and recognizable character types. No disappointment with that purchase.

Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced, single mother and when her abusive ex-husband turns up in another attempt to extort money from her, he ends up strangled on her apartment floor. Yasuko’s next door neighbor hears the commotion, guesses the outcome and offers to help. Ishigami, the neighbor is a high school teacher and something of a mathematical genius, but one with romantic interests toward Yasuko. Not only does he dispose of the body but he also plots a cover-up to misdirect the police. Unable to find any holes in Yasuko’s alibi (concocted by the math teacher), detectives still have a feeling something is wrong with the story. The head detective calls upon a university friend, a physicist with a knack for unraveling police puzzles. The interesting twist is that the physicist is also an old classmate and friend of the math teacher. It becomes a high level battle of wits between mathematician and physicist, but one with a murderous twist.

True with many Japanese mystery stories, the ‘who and how’ aspect of The Devotion of Suspect X is given up in the first twenty-five pages of the book. The book’s tension derives from trying to figure out if and how the police will crack the case, meanwhile showing the murderer and her accomplice in a mostly favorable and sympathetic light. There is a simple elegance to the way mathematician (accomplice) and physicist (sleuth) come to grips in their struggle toward lack of proof and proof positive. We need no special knowledge of either field—Higashino keeps his story mathematical in the layman’s sense.

There is no striving for ‘literary fiction’ in Higashino’s writing, nothing like what we might encounter in the work of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith or Dorothy Sayers. But this is by no means a negative observation, and Keigo Higashino does things with his style that we don't find in other mystery writers. Spare is the word that first comes to mind in trying to describe it. Economic is a word I like, and when that is achieved along with tension, momentum and sympathetic characters in a mind-twisting dilemma, well then I’m hooked.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting. You didn't mention the ending and how the murder was solved.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America