The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

Devotion Suspect X

Feted in Japan and with an increasingly high profile in the west (the cover proclaims him ‘The Japanese Stieg Larsson’), Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X was winner of Japan’s Naoki Prize for Best Novel.  It shines a light into a fascinating culture, one in which Japanese crime for the western reader usually means the Yakuza.  Instead, we see murder and its detection in a domestic setting, albeit with unusual protagonists.

Yasuko Hanaoka works in a lunch-box shop in suburban Tokyo, and is visited there by her abusive and thoroughly unpleasant ex-husband, ShinjiTogashi.  They have been divorced for five years but he has tracked her down to tap her for money, as he has done in the past.  Yasuko has a teenage daughter, Misato, from a previous marriage and Togashi uses covert threats against her to manipulate his ex-wife.  When he turns up at their flat and is unpleasant Misato hits him a copper vase, and the event escalates, with a furious Togashi astride Misato threatening to kill her. Desperate to protect her daughter, Yasuko manages to strangle him with an electrical flex.

To the reader this looks like a case of self-defence, or justifiable homicide, but there is a hint that the judicial system might not be entirely sympathetic so Yasuko hesitates to call the police.  The dilemma seems to be resolved when their neighbour, a mild-mannered but genius-level mathematics teacher, Tetsuya Ishigami, takes an interest, having heard the noise of the fight through the wall.  He feels a deep attraction to Yasuko so when he realises what has happened he offers to dispose of the body and formulate a complex cover-up for her.

Desperate to avoid what has happened coming out, Yasuko gratefully accept his offer and Ishigama becomes a kind of master of ceremonies, anticipating the progress of the police enquiry and orchestrating a response that is logical but designed to misdirect.  He approaches her difficulty coolly, as if it were another advanced mathematics problem.  Alas it’s a case of what a tangled web we weave, and Ishigami’s efforts to assist show that the human element introduces variables that cannot be solved with a pencil and paper like algebra.

Chief among these variables is the fact that Ishigami and the investigating officer, Kusanagi, were in the same year at university, though they hadn’t known each other.  More importantly they have a mutual friend, Manabu Yukawa.  He is a physics lecturer at Imperial University and someone who has helped the police with knotty problems in the past, earning the  nickname ‘Detective Galileo’.  Appreciating Ishigami’s capabilities, Yukawa quickly deduces that his old friend must have played a bigger role in the crime than is apparent, and decides to look into the matter.  In the process he finds loyalties torn, and admiration for Ishigami’s intellect in conflict with his desire for justice.  Meanwhile Ishigami finds that Yasuko is seeing an old friend, now widowed, and she clearly has feelings for him in a way that she does not for Ishigami himself.  Does devotion have its limits?

It’s a procedural in which we know the details of the murder but have to work out what Ishigami has done subsequently, and we follow the police’s investigation as they probe Yasuko’s alibi, Yukawa’s informal enquiries, which prove to be far more perceptive, and Ishigami’s string-pulling.  Both Ishigami and Yukawa are aware of the dangers of making assumptions, how easy it is to assume a problem is of a particular kind, funneling efforts to solve it in a particular direction, when it is of a totally different kind and requires alternative methods.  They discuss abstract concepts, but there is always a practical subtext applicable to the issue at hand.  Mathematics and physics are shown to be ideal disciplines for both criminals and detectives because of the mental rigour and readiness to explore alternative avenues they entail.  Against either, intuition-led police work, happy with a single answer that fits the evidence when there might be other more complex ones that are actually closer to the truth, is inferior in cutting through appearance to essence.

In all this jousting Yasuko is a pawn, told what to say and do by Ishigami.  Even she, we learn at the end, had no idea of the lengths he was prepared to go in order to protect her and Misato, and she is shocked when she learns the extent of his secret devotion to her.  It’s a bleak conclusion as Ishigami, even with his intelligence, finds that for all his efforts he has merely made things far worse.  The possibility of having himself to make a supreme sacrifice had been at the back of his mind from the start, and it is a fate that he is happy to accept as long as Yasuko is safe.  If that is not achieved, then it is all for nothing.

It’s a clever plot, worked out with precision, but there are weaknesses.  For a start the stimulus for Ishigami’s devotion, when revealed at the end, does not seem substantial enough to justify the lengths he is prepared to go to help this rather ordinary, if physically attractive, single mother.  Then the police possess a surprising tunnel vision in their focus on Yasuko as a suspect.  Togashi is a dubious character who had been fired from his job for dishonesty.  His trajectory since had been even further downhill.  Yet the police fixate on his ex-wife simply because they learn that Togashi had been trying to discover her new address.  We never hear that they have checked out associates past or present for someone more likely to have killed him.

It’s also rather convenient that Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi are connected.  Yukawa is only involved because he is Kusanagi’s friend and without his knowledge of Ishigami’s abilities the investigation might have reached a different outcome.  Yukawa eventually comes up with the correct solution, but as he admits, he has no proof.  He has apparently forgotten what he said when rejecting the scenario suggested by Ishigami’s red herrings, about a particular hypothesis not necessarily being right simply because it fits the facts and not being accepted until alternatives had been examined; there could have been still other solutions that conformed to the evidence – a somewhat tricky problem of inductive reasoning.  Kusanagi’s policeman’s intuition based on experience, for all its limitations, does after all have a place in detection.   The novel’s translation is serviceable but the American vocabulary may grate a little on English ears.  Even with these flaws The Devotion of Suspect X is a satisfactory piece of Japanese engineering.

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