Questionable intent

Keigo Higashino, hailed as Japan’s Stieg Larsson and winner of some of the country’s most prestigious awards in the category of mystery crime — the Edogawa Rampo Award, the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, and the highly regarded Naoki Prize, for his much-acclaimed The Devotion of Suspect X — has now come up with a latest title, Malice.

As the title indicates, there is a spine-chilling coldness to it where the existence of evil has no reason or rhyme, but simply is. There is no gore, no bloodthirstiness. Instead, the story is narrated in such a calm manner that it lulls the senses into a false sense of security.

Crime thrillers are commonly page-turners that cause your pulse to race and adrenaline levels to shoot up. Keiko Higashino’s quiet, deliberate style intends to do something quite different. At the very beginning of the book a murder is committed. Soon after, the identity of the criminal is also established as he makes a clean breast of it. Why read a thriller devoid of all raciness that characterises this breed? The answer lies in the slow-paced, detailed style of the author.

Reading Malice is a little like looking through a kaleidoscope. Little details contribute to a picture. Turn a page and the same pieces fall into a different pattern. Our understanding of the crime keeps shapeshifting as Higashino delves deeper into the human psyche. He explains that this sort of crime analysis is close to the Japanese heart. Instead of the explanation of everything’s significance at the end of the book, the intentions and actions of the characters are presented at the beginning.

The feelings of guilt and anguish that ensue from it make for a crime story with a difference. Hidaka, a renowned author, is about to relocate to Canada with his recently wedded wife Rie when he is found murdered at his home. The police narrow down their suspects to his two visitors who have seen him shortly before his death, and both seem to have cast-iron alibis, or do they?

The young woman, Miyako, who may have nursed a grudge, is soon cleared and we are left with Nonoguchi, Hidaka’s childhood friend and an ex-teacher-turned-author.

Coincidentally, detective Kaga who is put on this case is Nonoguchi’s old colleague. It’s his unerring instinct as well as persistence that lead to the slow unravelling of Nonoguchi’s account. He confesses early in the book to having committed the crime. And as an author of some repute, he chooses to put down his confession in writing. A murder has been committed, and the murderer has confessed to the crime. An open-and-shut case really. All that needs to be done is to tie up the ends neatly.

Yet, some niggling instinct goads Kaga to persist with the investigation to uncover the motive behind the crime, much to the annoyance of his superiors, and even after the newspapers have published the full-blown versions of the crime.

Stodgily probing, Kaga finds evidence that the two writers had a relationship that was quite different from what they claimed. Unwittingly, he also launches a journey into his own uncomfortable past when he and Nonoguchi were colleagues at work, and his wounds are rubbed raw, for some themes are never truly put to rest, they only lie low. And at the end of this journey is the heart of darkness in man.

Keiko Higashino professes that “the oppressive weight of human relations is a classic catalyst for murder”. Malice is a clear illustration of this. Childhood friends, and both of them authors, what could one man hold against the other that could lead to a murder? There are stories within a story here. All the classic paths are trodden. Infidelity — of one man’s love affair with the other’s wife, the deepest fears of an author are probed — that of his well of creativity drying up, of ghost-writing and blackmail and finally, an incurable illness. All of these could in themselves be a reason for the murder. And yet the seed of this crime is laid in the long-gone days of boyhood.

Keigo Higashino has professed that the aim is not to move readers or write beautiful sentences. He wishes to continually surprise readers by his ideas. He is completely successful here. Malice is full of twists and turns. When the end comes, one is left in silence mulling over the nature of man.

If you have a good head for a slow build-up of suspense and are not prone to bite your nails to a nub at the earliest signs of frustration, this is the book for you. Keiko Higashino has masterfully dealt with the different strands of human nature and has come up with a murder mystery that crosses over cultures.

Malice
Keigo Higashino
Hachette
2014, pp 281
350

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