Keigo Higashino at his masterful best | Review of ‘The Final Curtain’

The last one in the Japanese author’s Detective Kaga series is a no-frills police procedural with a veteran’s insight into the human condition

March 15, 2024 11:46 am | Updated 11:49 am IST

Stray looks, a suspicious hand gesture, a familiar conversation — Higashino’s detectives are well-versed in interpreting these windows to the soul.

Stray looks, a suspicious hand gesture, a familiar conversation — Higashino’s detectives are well-versed in interpreting these windows to the soul. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Keigo Higashino is Japan’s pre-eminent writer of detective fiction, with over 60 books across 30-plus years of writing. And yet, only about a dozen of these books have been translated into English. That is why The Final Curtain is billed as “the final Detective Kaga book” — the original is indeed the final book in the internal chronology of the series, but there are a fair few Kaga adventures yet to be translated into English.

The book begins on an appropriately cinematic note: we see how, 10 years ago, Detective Kyoichiro Kaga collected the ashes of his deceased mother. When Kaga was just an 11-year-old, his mother Yuriko Tajima had abandoned him and his father without warning — now, the woman who kept her ashes tells Kaga that Yuriko blamed herself “for failing as a wife and a mother”.

In the present day, Detective Kaga’s cousin and colleague Shuhei Matsumiya asks for his help on a pair of murders that have a strange set of connections to Yuriko’s passing a decade ago — and her possible relationship with a shadowy stranger called Watabe. One of these curious connections is a calendar with annotations in the form of bridge-names, one bridge for each month. Another is a theatre actor and director, Hiromi Asai, and her old high school class, some of whom may have knowledge of how the past connects these disparate individuals.

People don’t change

The impressive thing about The Final Curtain is that while the action is propulsive and the intricate plot unspools expertly, the actual ‘whodunnit’ part isn’t always the main event, especially in the second half where enterprising readers (and/ or longtime Higashino fans) may well join the dots themselves. Instead, Higashino uses his psychological acuity to delve deep into every single character’s motivation in life.

It is this brand of frothy, Freud-on-a-holiday psychological realism that’s now considered the Japanese veteran’s signature touch. Stray looks exchanged, a suspicious hand gesture, an overly familiar conversation — Higashino’s detectives are well-versed in interpreting these windows to the soul — Detective Kaga perhaps most of all.

Japanese writer Keigo Higashino

Japanese writer Keigo Higashino

This is the fourth book in which English-language readers are encountering Kaga, seen most recently in last year’s underwhelming A Death in Tokyo. Here both he and Higashino are back to top form. Which isn’t to say that Kaga has changed very much at all. In fact, one of the points on which Higashino has been stubborn all these years is that people don’t really change. And people who are in the business of ‘solving’ other people cannot afford to change, lest they lose their edge. Sample this passage where Hiromi is meeting Kaga after several years. At their last meeting, Kaga was organising a kendo camp for some of the children Hiromi was teaching theatre to.

“He hadn’t changed at all over the intervening years: his eyes were just as keen and bright, his features were just as strong, and he still gave off that very human sense of warmth. What Hiromi had asked of him was difficult enough, but he had gone well beyond that, trying to teach the children everything they needed to know to acquire perfect sword-fighting technique. In the end, it was Hiromi who had to suggest that perhaps the children were good enough. Kaga was not just a kind man, he was also a man of his word.”

Several story arcs

I was impressed, also, by the way Higashino packs in a lot of story arcs in the third act without making it impossibly dense or cluttered. Every piece of the puzzle is allotted the same degree of detail and solemnity, no theme is dangled just to check it off a list. For instance, in the past as well, Higashino has used Japan’s nuclear history as a plot point, depicting how the shadow of radiation illness still hangs upon a part of the populace. In The Final Curtain, too, one of the ‘people of interest’ is found to have worked at a nuclear power station — the kind of job that leaves its imprint upon the body and mind.

“Anyone who worked in radiation-controlled areas had to register. The task force had already confirmed that neither Shunichi Watabe nor Mutsuo Koshikawa were on file there. Of course, someone could still have been working under those names in nuclear power plants, just not in any radiation-controlled areas. However, an expert on nuclear power industry staffing issues they had talked to had assured them that that was highly unlikely. In the nuclear business, everyone knew that the best way to earn serious money — more money than was available anywhere else — was to expose yourself to generous amounts of radiation.”

This might be my favorite Higashino of them all, actually. As good as The Devotion of Suspect X and Malice were, this is Higashino operating with sedate mastery. No flashiness, no fuss, just good, solid police procedural writing coupled with a veteran’s insights into the human heart and mind. Highly recommended for all fans of crime fiction.

The Final Curtain
Keigo Higashino
Hachette India

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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