No sudden bursts of action. No explicit violence or dramatic confrontations. Yet, this Japanese murder mystery is unnerving in ways more conventional ones are not.
The Japanese thriller Yôgisha X no Kenshin became an international publishing sensation when it was translated into English as The Devotion of Suspect X two years ago. Authored by Keigo Higashino — president of the Mystery Writers of Japan — it was a most unusual kind of murder mystery; technically speaking, not a murder mystery at all, since the killing, committed in self-defence, occurred in the first 30 pages, with the reader made privy to everything that led up to it (only at the end did one realise that a small but vital piece of information had been withheld). The suspense came from the way the narrative moved between the police investigation and the murderer’s attempts at alibi-creation, and the final twist — involving the nature of the cover-up — was ingenious. But the book’s lingering quality — its ability to stay under a reader’s skin long after its secrets had been disclosed — hinged on its portrayal of two characters who match wits: one a brilliant physicist-sleuth named Yukawa (also known as Detective Galileo) and the other a criminal with almost unfathomable, monk-like reserves of personal dedication and forbearance.
Now another Higashino thriller is out in translation, as Salvation of a Saint, and it has all the qualities that made the first book so gripping. As in The Devotion of Suspect X, the suspense lies not so much in the murderer’s identity (though in this case there is some second-guessing on that front too) but in how the crime was pulled off — and the solution is just as jaw-dropping.
These are the facts of the case: a man named Yoshitaka lies dead in his house, a spilt cup of poisoned coffee by his side. Yoshitaka was not, we learn, particularly sensitive in his treatment of women (Higashino does seem to derive literary pleasure in making murder victims out of unpleasant men!), and there are basically two suspects: his wife Ayane and his lover Hiromi. The reader is allowed to be a step ahead of the investigating detectives — we know Hiromi is not guilty, since most of the early events, leading up to the discovery of the body, have been presented through her stricken perspective. And within the first few pages, we have been told that Ayane at least intended to kill her husband and had the means to do so. The rub is: she was hundreds of miles away, visiting her parents, when the coffee was made and consumed. As the detectives try to postulate scenarios where she might have pre-planned the killing before she left, they come up against a wall — and eventually the sardonic Yukawa is brought in to weigh the options.
What he discovers — and I feel I can write this without giving away any spoilers — is something very close to the perfect crime, with a solution that is simultaneously very simple and dangerously outlandish. When it is revealed, a reader’s instinctive response might be to snort and say “Impossible” (which is what the detectives listening to Yukawa do). I even felt a little cheated at first, as if the author had blindsided me by stepping outside the permissible limits of the genre. But further reflection shifted my perception of what was possible and what wasn’t; I began to see the peculiar internal logic of the denouement in light of the personalities and the lifestyles involved, and the crime no longer appeared unfeasible.
Of course, a 370-page book has to be more than its climactic disclosure, and Salvation of a Saint is tense and well-paced. It does contain at least one over-familiar trope of the police procedural or noir — a detective becoming attracted to an apparently vulnerable woman, perhaps compromising his own integrity in the process — though this isn’t stretched to the point of derivativeness. The actual writing has some of the functional woodenness that you find in most commercial fiction of this sort — too many references to a character’s eyes “widening in surprise”, for example, or hands gripping a phone tightly when unexpected news is received — but these are tics of the genre, easy enough to ignore up to a point. (Besides, as has often been observed, when Japanese is translated into English, the results can seem a little stilted and over-formal, especially when the reader is from a culture that doesn’t understand why a detective might remove his shoes outside a house before going in to question a murder suspect.)
This book is about a crime born of very deep passion, but with no sudden bursts of action, no explicit violence or dramatic confrontations, it is unnerving in ways that more conventional thrillers are not. And despite the fact that the setting is a homogenous modern city and the characters are in some ways indistinguishable from upper-middle-class people living anywhere in the world, there is something distinctly Japanese about it, something of the deceptive placidity of the filmmaker Ozu or the novelist Ishiguro. There is a sense of a neat and ordered contemporary world with mystical rumblings beneath its surface, reminiscent of the Sheep Man in Haruki Murakami’s novels, hidden in a forgotten corner of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, or a videotape being employed by supernatural forces in Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. Higashino’s book is set in a world of tidy kitchens with coffee-makers and bottled mineral water, of sophisticated dinners and dating parties, but beneath it all is something more primal. The image one is left with at the end is the indelible one of a predatory spider watching quietly, patiently over her web.
Salvation of a Saint; Keigo Higashino, Abacus/Hachette India, Rs.350.