Astute teenage detective in a thriller for grownups


THE DEVIL’S WHISPER (Majutsu wa Sasayaku) by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi. Kodansha International, 2008, 250 pp., ¥2,600 (cloth)

In ancient Greek tragedies, hopeless predicaments were often resolved through on-the-spot intervention of the gods — or rather actors playing gods — who were physically lowered onto the stage by a crane. Hence the Latin term deus ex machina, literally “god out of a machine.”

In its modern usage, this expression typically refers to some astonishing revelation that brings together what had, up to that point, appeared as an unrelated sequence of events.

In “The Devil’s Whisper,” published in the vernacular in 1989, Miyuki Miyabe shows herself to be a virtuoso. And all the more so because her protagonist is a 16-year-old boy.

I’m given to recall books where a plucky young protagonist undergoes a harrowing experience and prevails over seemingly overwhelming odds. One of my favorites is John Grisham’s 1994 thriller “The Client.”

But Miyabe’s character, Mamoru Kusaka, is in a different league from Grisham’s 11-year-old Mark Sway. Mamoru has been tempered by misfortune — an embezzler father who vanished, leaving his uncle’s family to raise him — and his upright decency attracts both loyal, supportive friends and the predictably nasty bullies at his high school.

True, Mamoru’s detective abilities may be just a bit more astute than the average 16-year-old’s; but Miyabe has made him such an appealing kid, you can’t help but cheer his efforts to investigate the series of inexplicable suicides by young women, including one run down by his taxi-driver uncle.

A subplot deals with a man bent on extracting demonic vengeance against practitioners of what, in fact, happens to be a fairly common type of fraud. Miyabe also incorporates another component common to Grisham’s works, in the way her characters not only prevail, but attain psychological or spiritual redemption.

The story’s characters, both past and present, are intertwined by fate as Miyabe, the master hand behind this deus ex machina, manipulates them, crafting a masterful tale of mystery and detection with some chills and thrills mixed in for good measure.

A final word: I have, on more than one occasion, grumbled about the readability of translated works. This time, I’m happy to not have to make that complaint. “The Devil’s Whisper” more than passes muster. The prose, particularly the dialogue, zips right along, making it a provocative page-turner right up until the final ” ‘I’m on my way home,’ answered Mamoru.”