Beyond a shadow of doubt in new Higashino mystery


SALVATION OF A SAINT, by Keigo Higashino. Little Brown, 2013, 376 pp., £12.99 (hardcover)

When the pregnant lover of a murder victim receives the sympathetic ministrations from the deceased’s wife at the funeral service, you know you are in no ordinary emotional terrain.

This novel by Keigo Higashino follows the tried and tested format of his international best-seller, “The Devotion of Suspect X,” with detective Kusanagi, a gifted professional but with limited vision, confronted with a crime that appears to offer no implicating links to the prime suspect.

The policeman’s old friend, Manabu Yukawa, provides the specialized analytical skills a creative scientist and unconventional thinker can apply to solving a crime that seems insoluble. Known affectionately in constabulary circles as “Detective Galileo,” Yukawa is one of the author’s more interesting creations. An obsessive coffee consumer and tireless researcher, with a quirky sense of humor to go with it, Yukawa works as a consultant for the police on a volunteer basis, but only when a crime interests him enough.

Much of the book, requiring just the kind of acute exercise in reasoning that suits Yukawa, is devoted to the question of how to disprove a seemingly watertight alibi. Kaoru Utsumi, a young assistant detective with ability for thinking outside the box, provides some striking moments of insight and is a character likely to be retained in future stories.

Higashino’s novels are unusual for the genre in the fact that the reader knows, almost beyond a shadow of doubt, who the perpetrator is, practically from the onset. The element of surprise comes from learning how the crime was planned and executed. Knowing who the culprit is at an early stage is like being presented with the components of a dismantled kit. You know what the completed form should look like, but you are required to puzzle over how it can be reassembled.

The prime suspect’s relationship to her husband reminds us that if love is not properly reciprocated, the consequences can be fatal. Does anybody deserve to die? The suspect’s husband may lack the milk of human kindness his partner merits, but whether he deserves to be the victim of a poisoning is for the reader to judge. Our sympathies, however, are largely with the murderer, Ayane, whose love of flowers and art are skillfully contrasted with her partner’s aridity, his “general indifference to the natural world.”

In Japan, a nation that, despite all evidence to the contrary, prides itself on a material egalitarianism, we often forget how deeply riven by class and economic divisions the country is. Ayane and her partner host dinner parties where the custom is to serve only Venetian-style glasses to guests. In this refined milieu, light years away from Tokyo families living in dilapidated two-room apartments, the author shows us how easy it is, even in privileged circumstances, for discontent to fester.

Higashino is described on the cover by one prominent British newspaper as “The Japanese Stieg Larsson,” a rather misleading comparison given the political content and character complexity of the Swede’s novels. Higashino’s concerns are with a smaller domestic universe of injured feelings, slights that have to be resolved, crimes that, however brilliantly plotted, remain within the capabilities of your next-door neighbor. His killers are always women, and have motives that we can empathize with.

Bewitching, utterly ruthless females have been a staple of Japanese literature for centuries, a character type that made a successful transition into film. Inevitably, there are some gender slants that betray this as a Japanese novel. Despite the commendable addition of Utsumi, the new Japanese woman, the portrayal of a murderous woman presupposes an attitude crystallized in Kusanagi’s recollection of an observation made to him by another detective: that, despite appearances to the contrary, one should “never underestimate the power of a cheating woman.”

Kusanagi goes to inordinate lengths to prove to himself that the suspect is unimpeachable. The detective’s better judgment, in fact, is affected for much of the novel by the physical presence and allure of the prime suspect.

At one point in the novel, Yukawa is able to explain what he describes as the perfect crime, but because of its meticulous conception, is unable to provide evidence that would convict the suspect. The novel is consistent with the meticulous attention to detail that characterizes Japanese crime mysteries from the Edo Period setting of Okamoto Kido’s detective stories to the novels of Seicho Matsumoto.

Japanese crime fiction, at least in translation, often suffers from clunky story lines, a structural weakness the author is at pains to avoid. Higashino presents his story of murderous intent with a deftness equaled only by the ingenuity of his prime suspect.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.