‘Newcomer: A Story of Death in Tokyo’ by Keigo Higashino: Death and the city

Reads like a game of chess unfolding between computers

March 09, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

The low-profile cop Kyoichiro Kaga — an eccentric with a razor-sharp mind and a stubborn nature to boot — isn’t exactly a ‘newcomer’ for those of us who are hooked on Japanese author Keigo Higashino’s cool as sushi, bonsai-elegant crime novels. But in this latest story about Kaga’s exploits to be translated into English, he’s just been transferred to an old-fashioned Tokyo precinct — away from the more happening parts of town — and where he himself is a curious stranger. This becomes an intriguing setting for a murder, though the crime appears — at least initially — merely to be an excuse for Kaga to spend days exploring the quaint alleys of the area.

Mineko Mitsui, a recently divorced woman who just moved into the neighbourhood where she lived a tranquil life as a translator, liked by all (including her estranged husband, Naohiro Kyose, who was nothing but supportive throughout their parting of ways), has been found strangulated in her home. The few possible suspects are quickly cleared by investigators from the Homicide Division and it is left to the unyielding detective Kaga to canvass the neighbourhood, mainly chatting to one shopkeeper after another while trying to piece together the victim’s last days and hours and minutes.

Sweet pastries booby-trapped with pungent wasabi mustard and traditional spinning tops feature as some of the many befuddling clues that Kaga has to deal with and that he tracks down to various shops. As usual, Higashino writes with mathematical precision — reading him is like watching a game of chess unfold between computers. It is utterly stimulating while also slightly challenging, and one of the particular challenges in this book is that it discards the idea of the traditional storyline’s focus in which readers follow events from the protagonist’s point-of-view. Instead, in every chapter we are introduced to an entirely fresh cast of characters. (Luckily, at the start of the book there’s a list of them and their respective occupations.) The unfolding of the drama is therefore viewed from the perspectives of multiple sets of witnesses who encounter the detective as he comes to speak with them.

This kaleidoscopic narrative experiment allows the author to build up the side-characters’ lives, and their problems take centre stage (rather than the murder victim who mostly remains in the background). So each of these chapters can actually be read as a complete short story in itself: tales of people who work in the various establishments along an archetypal Tokyo street, shop assistants, restaurant staff, and waitresses in cafés. They all have their own dilemmas (generation gaps within the family, infidelities or indiscretions, fallouts between friends) and somehow their meetings with the detective, and interactions with him, lead to unexpected resolutions — perhaps, at times, making the novel feel too perfect with so many pat outcomes.

But it is written with such a delicate and masterful touch that this symmetrical neatness would hardly be noticeable unless the lack of loose ends occasionally felt somewhat contrived. Questioned by one of the witnesses he interrogates as to why he pokes his nose into things that are not exactly relevant for the ongoing manhunt, Kaga responds, “Oh, I am investigating the murder; of course I am. But my job as a detective should go beyond that. People who’ve been traumatized by a crime are victims, too. Finding ways to comfort them is also part of my job.”

At exactly this point I’m reminded of Underground (originally published four years before Newcomer ), cult author Haruki Murakami’s stunning non-fiction book of interviews with some 60 survivors from the Tokyo subway nerve gas attacks in 1995 that killed 12 people and injured thousands. In it, Murakami not only goes into what exactly happened to each interviewee and how it affected him or her, but he also offers us a larger perspective by charting their social circumstances and what led them to be where they were on that fateful day when their lives got disrupted. Newcomer echoes that work in exploring what effect a brutal crime has on the fabric of a city like Tokyo, making it a thought-provoking literary exploration into victimology.

Ultimately, however, Higashino’s novel is perhaps mostly to be seen as a take on the classic Agatha Christie style of detective fiction but upgraded by about a 100 years into an entertaining Japanese-style mind game.

The part-time travel writer, part-time detective novelist’s latest thriller is Tropical Detective .

Newcomer: A Story of Death in Tokyo; Keigo Higashino, Hachette, ₹399

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