Murder jigsaw

The devotion of suspect X
Keigo Higashino
2012, pp 374

Kiego Higashino is one of Japan’s leading crime-fiction writers, Japan’s James Patterson, if you like. The Devotion of Suspect X is the first of his books to be translated to English.

The author has won several national awards for his writing. The blurb of the book also proclaims him to be the Japanese Steig Larsson, and says that The Devotion of Suspect X became a national obsession, with over two million copies being sold in Japan alone.

Naturally, expectations are high when you pick up this suspense/mystery thriller. But keep in mind that this is not your usual crime thriller. A murder takes place, but right in the first chapter. The identity of the murderer is very clear, as are the circumstances and the motive.

So where exactly does the suspense lie?
The book is less of a whodunit, and more of a will-they-find-out thriller. The story centres round Yasuko and her daughter Misato. After her divorce from her abusive husband Shinji Togashi, Yasuko tries to settle down into a quiet, comfortable life, with Misato. She has a regular job at a lunch-box shop, and is well-settled in her new life when her ex-husband Shinji Togashi shows up at her door. His arrival shatters her peace and turns her world
upside down.

There are other characters who figure in this plot: Ishigami, the middle-aged mathematics teacher who lives beside Yasuko’s home, and secretly loves her; Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police Force, who investigates this baffling case; and Manabu Yukawa, a professor and friend of Kusanagi’s, as well as an old classmate of Ishigami — also known as ‘Detective Galileo’ in the Japanese series.
When Yasuko kills her ex-husband and doesn’t know what to do, Ishigami steps in to rescue her from her distress.

Then begins an elaborate process to cover up the murder and put the police off their scent. Ishigami constructs a ruse with a mathematical precision that is chilling, looking into the smallest of details. He guides Yasuko and Misato through the police investigation — although from afar, to avoid any suspicion falling on him either. The fact that Shinji Togashi’s body appears far away from Yasuko’s house, face smashed in and fingerprints burnt off to avoid recognition, only serves to make the case more intriguing.

When Detective Kusanagi begins investigating the case, he pieces together all the information to arrive at the identity of the victim, Shinji Togashi. Investigations take him to Yasuko, who Togashi is said to have been looking for before his death. There’s one person with a motive: but her alibi is watertight, and there’s no proof that she was in touch with Togashi before the murder. What’s more, there’s no way a woman of her physique could have managed to murder Togashi. There is a possible explanation, but something doesn’t add up. Kusanagi takes the help of the genius researcher Manabu Yukawa to help him solve the case; thereafter, it becomes a battle between two old classmates and adversaries.

Most readers would dismiss the idea of knowing about the murder and then reading about the investigation as dreary or boring. The murder (and the first few chapters of the book) do give the impression of it being a dull read, with seemingly random descriptions of homeless people, a walk to work, a visit to a lunch-box shop; however, the writing picks up pace as the book progresses, reaching a thrilling pace as the climax approaches.

The author cleverly adds layers after layers to the facts presented in the beginning, throwing up many questions to the investigating detectives and to the reader as well. How does Yasuko have a watertight alibi? How far will Ishigami go to keep Yasuko safe? What does he expect from her in return?

It puts the classic P/NP combination into this context and asks, what is more difficult — to find a solution to a problem that already exists, or to devise a problem that can never be solved? It’s a scientific, mathematical process, as Yukawa, the professor, tries to solve a problem that has been posed, while the school teacher Ishigami tries to secure it and make it unsolvable. It’s a puzzle that unravels bit by bit, with a great twist at the end.

The book is very clever, and a brave departure from the usual thriller mysteries, one that will be remembered long after you’ve put it down.

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