Yasuko Hanaoka has what many would consider a good life. She lives in a small but comfortable Tokyo apartment, works in a bento shop and has raised her school-age daughter Misato alone since her split from her former husband, Shinji Togashi.
Misato’s paternity is never addressed in Keigo Higashino’s sharp The Devotion of Suspect X, a procedural that hit the bestseller list hit in Japan in 2005 and is newly translated for the English-speaking world, just as a film adaptation is in the works. Togashi was not Misato’s biological parent but her stepfather, and something of a brute – though Yasuko ended the marriage several years before the story begins, he has turned up periodically to demand money and enjoy the distress he still causes Misato.
In the fateful scene that sets up the plot, he visits the Hanaoka apartment, taunting Yasuko and refusing to leave until she gives him 20,000 yen. But it seems not money he’s after but a way back into her life and that of her daughter, and it’s when he turns his attention to the cowering Misato that her mother snaps.
The flash of what was a diabolical family dynamic is revealing: Yasuko is not so much afraid as irritated and weary, but Misato’s evident fear creates an air of menace that dissipates, albeit briefly, when Togashi lies dead, strangled with an electrical cord.
The matter of a dead body is a greater problem than Yasuko can solve, but with her reclusive neighbour Ishigami’s Sherlock Holmes-esque entrance into the story, the corpse quickly vanishes and an alibi is concocted in the event of the body’s discovery and the attention of the police.
With that, a complex web is woven. Ishigami has at once rescued and indebted Yasuko. And as we learn from his old university acquaintance, Manabu Yukawa, who returns to Ishigami’s life in the wake of the murder, the mathematician-turned-high school teacher was known by his fellow students as ‘Ishigami the Buddha’, such was his affinity for the unknown and his unreadable demeanour. It is in this implacability, and the impossibility of gauging the extent of Ishigami’s motivation and what he is capable of doing in service of it, that the intrigue lies.
Yukawa plays a savant-like role in the story, liaising alternately with the lead detective, Kusanagi (another Imperial University alum), and Ishigami as the investigation unfolds. It is he who realizes Ishigami’s feelings for Yasuko are beyond mere neighbourly concern. Towards the end, it becomes clear that Yukawa now understands everything, but he won’t solve Kusanagi’s case for him, preferring to invite the detective to see the crime through a different lens.
If you think of The Devotion of Suspect X as a literary episode Law & Order: Tokyo you won’t be far off – it is a tightly plotted procedural stemming from a single dramatic event that delivers, as the jacket promises, ‘an ending you’ll never guess’. And, surprisingly, it’s a story that could translate easily to any Western city. Higashino has a knack for finding the universal in the criminal and deserves fame beyond Japan.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones