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Tantalizingly tangled dead-man mystery

by Steve Finbow

THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, by Keigo Higashino. Translated by Alexander O. Smith. Minotaur Books, 2011, 304 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

A jogger discovers a male corpse wrapped in blue tarpaulin on the Tokyo embankment of the Edogawa. Someone has stripped the man’s body, beaten his face until unrecognizable, burned off his fingerprints, and set fire to his clothes. Marks around the neck mean someone strangled the man but how did the body get to the river? What is the meaning of the bicycle with punctured tires? Who is this dead man?

So, a straightforward police procedural and whodunit? Not really, because we know who the dead man is, we have already witnessed the crime, we know who helps dispose of the body; we know the motive, the scene, the killers, and the murder weapon. At least we think we do. The police think they know who did it. Even the killers think they know who murdered the man. They did, didn’t they?

The mystery plays out like a reverse chess game — we know all the moves, we know the way to checkmate, but how from an endgame do we get all the pieces back into their original positions?

Manabu Yukawa, an assistant professor of physics at the Imperial University, uses scientific reasoning to assist his friend Detective Kusanagi with his homicide caseload. Ex-hostess Yasuko Hanaoka and her teenage daughter Misato are trying to rebuild their life after Yasuko’s abusive marriage to Shinji Togashi. Togashi tracks his ex-wife down, threatens her and asks for money. Yasuko’s next-door neighbor Ishigami — a brilliant mathematician and loner — has a crush on her and happens to be Yukawa’s old classmate. When walking to the high school where he teaches, Ishigami passes the cardboard shanties covered in blue tarpaulin lining the banks of the Sumida. When Yasuko and Misato kill Togashi, Ishigami pledges to help them — he will get rid of the body, hide the weapon, and set in motion events that will provide them with alibis.

The police identify the body as that of Togashi and track him back to a rented room in Shinjuku; they take hair from the room and match the DNA with that of the body. The next logical step is to question Togashi’s ex-wife, stepdaughter, and any neighbors who may have heard or seen anything suspicious. Detective Kusanagi shares his evidence and thoughts on the case with Yukawa, hoping the physics genius will provide an insight, but when the professor discovers that Ishigami is one of the people under suspicion, he becomes intrigued and visits his old friend. There follows a narrative of clues, red herrings, doubts, suspicion, subterfuge and surprises.

The novel takes detective fiction and police procedural genres and flips them. As in whodunit novels, we start with a dead body; but the twisted approach to discovering the murderer engages the reader rather than merely going through the mystery-genre motions. The physics professor and the mathematics teacher pit their scientific skills against each other; the detective and his partner look for clues, slips in statements, holes in alibis; and the mother and daughter go about their business oblivious to what is really happening.

Alexander O. Smith’s translation of this dialogue-driven novel is as rigorous as any physics or mathematics professor’s formula, yet light enough to not emulsify the reader in theory. Tokyo’s rivers add atmosphere, coursing through the city concealing bodies and clues, while the megalopolis broods then shrugs its shoulders having seen it all before — maybe.

Keigo Higashino offers insights into the changing nature of Japanese education, homelessness and the loneliness of life in the capital city, while the incremental tension and amorphous nature of truth make the solution of the problem tantalizingly difficult.