Rooted in the tangled tale of Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X is the beating heart of obligation. This Japanese cultural value doesn’t quite have a western equivalent—duty to country, of course—but nothing that matches the manic obsession to repay someone, even a stranger, for a kindness or a gift. If the favor is returned, the debtor is finally free. But if not, the debtor remains forever tied to one who rendered assistance.
Readers need to understand the power of obligation in Japanese society to fully understand the motivations of the first protagonist, Tetsuya Ishigami, a high-school math teacher. I say first, because the third-person narrative goes into the heads of multiple characters, including Yasuko Hanaoka, the former nightclub hostess who now works at a lunch-box shop; Detective Kuragami with the Tokyo Police Department; and most notably, Mamoru Yuzawa, a physics professor who assists the police. These characters revolve around the strangulation of Shinji Togashi, Yasuko’s ex-husband.
There’s a slight problem in this Rashomon approach. Because who are we supposed to root for? The geekish, awkward Ishigami? The single mother, Yasuko, a former victim of spousal abuse? Or the gentle, dogged Yuzawa, who is known as “Detective Galileo.” (Yuzawa is featured in a Japanese television series called Galileo, starring)
But this is a minor quibble. The charm of The Devotion of Suspect X is its puzzle. We witness the main crime and its perpetrators in the beginning of the book—no mystery there—but its cover-up and subsequent police investigation are played out like a chess game. The two worthy opponents are Ishigami and Yuzawa who know each other from their college days at the prestigious Imperial University, the Harvard of Japan. They share mutual respect for each other’s intellect and devotion to their field. So is Yuzawa a true friend or foe? Where does his devotion lie? The introduction of another love interest in Yasuko’s life further muddies the water.
Higashino, the winner of Japan’s celebrated Edogawa Rampo mystery award, wastes no excess in his writing. In spare strokes, he paints modern-day urban Japan, the homeless shantytowns, modest apartment rooms with kotatsu tables and bicycle-riding commuters and every detail plays a role in the mystery. He won the Naoki Prize for this novel, which was adapted into a popular movie. (See this link for a subtitled trailer. The approach is much more playful than the tone of the book itself and includes an additional character, a young female police detective Kaoru Utsumi.)
Love and obligation are not interchangeable, as these characters learn. Love is most likely best exemplified in Yasuko’s relationship with her teenage daughter, Misato. Actually, there is a lost opportunity here, because Higashino fails to enter the mind of Misato, who expresses more passion than any of the adults around her. She, too, feels the oppressive weight of obligation and it is her actions that finally cause all calculations to fall apart.
Higashino has written more than a dozen novels, but The Devotion of Suspect X is only his second to be translated into Japanese. (The translation by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander is excellent, by the way.) With very few contemporary Japanese mysteries available in the U.S., The Devotion of Suspect X is a very welcome addition to join such classics as Natsuo Kirino’s Out and Miyuki Miyabe’s All She Was Worth. We eagerly wait for more.
Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series. The fourth in the series, Blood Hina, was released in 2010.