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The Devotion of Suspect X: A Review

December 27, 2010 2 comments

The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Minotaur Books, 2010
Paperback (ARC), 298 pages

This one wasn’t originally on my reading list, but because I won it from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, it shot to the top of the list.

So, The Devotion of Suspect X then…

Instead of a classic whodunit, this story had more of a Crime and Punishment style cat and mouse game.  Ishigami, called “the Buddha” by his admirers and chroniclers (he really doesn’t have friends) is a brilliant mathematician who’s madly in love with his neighbor Yasuko Hanaoka.  At first his devotion is understated; each day she goes to work at the lunch box shop, he faithfully buys his lunch from her.  Then when Yasuko and her daughter kill her deadbeat ex-husband, Ishigami’s devotion becomes much more overt; he offers to cover up the murder and build them the perfect alibi.  We as readers know whodunit and who was covering it up.  The mystery comes from figuring out just how Ishigami managed to factor in so many variables (forensics, the Hanaoka women’s mental states) and almost retroactively plan the perfect crime.

However, as Ishigami realizes, there was one variable he did not consider.  The detective assigned to the case is friends with Yukawa, an old classmate of Ishigami’s.  While the detective has a sense that Hanaoka’s alibi isn’t quite right, it takes Yukawa’s own brilliant physicist mind (and his old knowledge of Ishigami’s personality) to finally figure out just how elaborate and deep the cover-up (and Ishigami’s devotion to Hanaoka) runs.

While the story is good, I feel like it needed at least one more good revision to tighten up some of the writing and plot elements.  Several early parts in the book are bogged down with Captain Obvious statements.  For instance:

“I think it’s great that they go out to karaoke together.  It’s not often you have a mother and daughter who get along so well.”  It was clear from his tone that [junior detective] Kishitani did not consider Yasuko Hanaoka a suspect.

That second sentence about Kishitani’s tone is unnecessary.  The preceding scene, heck the preceding sentence conveys Kishitani’s favorable view of Yasuko sufficiently.  A sentence or two like that in the beginning is not a big deal, but they occur so frequently in the early part of the book that it almost feels like the author* doesn’t trust his readers to pick up on his characters thoughts and feelings on the murder.

Captain Obvious states the obvious.

The second issue I have is with the timing of Yasuko’s great love, Kudo’s introduction.  We learn early on about Yasuko’s old job as a nightclub hostess, but we do not even get a mention of any man she met that she might have considered a life with or that she even considered her hostess job as anything but work.  Around page 100, when the mystery is really getting into gear, Kudo visits the shop and we are given his intro and expository background in one fell swoop.  Now, I don’t mind Kudo first appearing at this point as there is a good in-story justification for it (he heard about the murder of his old hostess friend’s husband on the news and wanted to see how she was).  But there was no noticeable foreshadowing that a character like Kudo (a man for whom Yasuko’s nightclub hostess personality wasn’t just an act) existed.  It feels like the author realized a hundred pages in that he forgot to introduce the complicating factor of Yasuko falling for a man who was NOT her protector and scrambled to get that subplot going.

Even with these complaints, I do think the book is worth reading.  I like the battle of wits between the physicist and the mathematician who, if not fully realized, are at least three-dimensional enough that I can mostly understand why the characters were behaving as they did.**  I appreciate the effort to keep Yasuko a player in this story.  The relationship with Kudo reminded us that Yasuko wasn’t merely a woman stuffed into the fridge*** giving Ishigami et al. the impetus for their adventures.  She was a person (at least as much any other character in the story) who had her own thoughts.  She truly was the person that Ishigami was devoted to, rather than the object of Ishigami’s affections.  As she was a person and not merely a prize, she was allowed to fall for Kudo and not be vilified for not “rewarding” her protector with reciprocated devotion.

Most importantly, when watching Ishigami and Yukawa at work, I believed the text’s repeated assertions about their genius.  Without that, the story would have collapsed regardless of how well realized the characters were otherwise.  The book as written is pretty good.  If the author and editor had taken the time to fix some of the pacing problems and edit out the Captain Obvious lines, it could have been really good.

* Or the translator.  I couldn’t tell you whose decision it was to add the Captain Obvious sentences.

** Though there is a particular revelation about Ishigami that shouldn’t have been saved until the last ten pages.  It was not necessary to wait that long to maintain the suspense about whether Ishigami would continue to protect the girl when it became clear that he would not get the girl.  By the time he played his trump card, the reader knows he’s not going to turn on Yasuko and we didn’t need to wait another fifty or so pages to find out why.    Again, where it was placed, it felt like the author realized at the last minute “whoops, I need to solidify the lead’s character motivation.”

*** For more information, see this page at TVTropes.  While Yasuko was not murdered, she could have easily been shunted aside once she committed her crime with no thought to her worries or feelings of guilt or her concerns about whether she can actually move on with her life.

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The Short Stories: New Orleans Noir

August 27, 2010 1 comment

Now that I’m back at school, time to switch reading gears.  When you have over a hundred pages of reading to do in a week (and not just reading you can skim) plus papers, the longform novel starts looking less appealing.  However, the thought of merely reading for my graduate program hurts my soul.  I tend to need a little fiction in my life.

Enter the short story.

I love short story anthologies, particularly themed short story anthologies.  They provide perfect sized morsels of that can sate the fiction craving.  Sometimes I’ll pick up a collection by a single author (last year was a Raymond Carver binge–how could not be drawn to a book with the title What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).  Other times, I’ll look for themed anthologies–particular collections that share a theme of place.

A story’s setting can add so much dimension–squandering it can really hurt the story overall, even if the plot and characters are well drawn.*

And when you have a setting like New Orleans, the place itself becomes a lead character in its own right (assuming its potential is actually realized).  At least, that was my thinking when I picked up New Orleans Noir.  Looking at the table of contents, the book is split between pre-Katrina New Orleans (Before the Levees Broke) and post-Katrina New Orleans (Life in Atlantis).  Each story is set in a different neighborhood and purports to capture the flavor of that section of the city.

The book is part of the Akashic Noir series, which apparently organizes anthologies around the “noir” tales that arise around the world.**  Assuming I like the New Orleans collection, I will likely have 20+ anthologies to add to my “to-read” list.

Seedy underbellies everywhere.

Oh well, if graduate school keeps me from traveling to Rome and Texas*** for real, at least I’ll be able to visit**** them through these stories, so long as the settings are not squandered.

* And when the plot and characters suck–well, you get Real Vampires Have Curves.

** Most of the books are set in the United States (three anthologies for Brooklyn alone, plus separate ones for Queens and Manhattan).  However, there’s also Delhi Noir, Istanbul Noir, and London Noir among others.  There’s also a Twin Cities Noir book which fascinates me.  One would expect cities like Tokyo, Berlin or Atlanta to get anthologies before the Twin Cities.

*** Surprisingly, there are no separate anthologies for Dallas, Houston, Austin or any other major Texas cities.  It’s just Lone Star Noir.

**** And I will be exploring other places by reading these anthologies, as a Noir anthology based in my city has neither been released yet, nor is on the “to be released” list.  Lagos and Richmond are getting their anthologies before my city.

Categories: Mystery Tags: , ,

Grave Sight: A Review

August 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Grave Sight
Charlaine Harris
Berkley Publishing Group, 2005
Hardcover: 263 pages

After becoming a fan of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse mysteries (and the televised alternate continuity that is True Blood), I started to search for other books she’s written.  Much to my delight, Sookie isn’t Harris’s only heroine.  Now it’s time for her latest series, Grave Sight.

My first instinct was to compare Grave mysteries heroine Harper Connelly to Southern Vampire‘s Sookie Stackhouse.  There are similarities: both books feature heroines in their mid twenties who come from modest backgrounds that are bestowed with a telepathic ability that makes others uneasy.  While Sookie can read minds, Harper has the ability to sense dead bodies that have yet to be found and tell how that person died.  Both series are set in small towns in the South.  Both heroines are for all intents and purposes orphans that are close with a brother who happens to be somewhat of a slut.  Both heroines are very no-nonsense about their abilities and aren’t afraid to tell idiots what they can go do with themselves.  Both also experienced sexual victimization at a young age and start the series either virginal or relatively inexperienced with sex and relationships.

However, do not think that Harper is merely a dark-haired Sookie Stackhouse who can hear dead people.  Harper is a far more cynical character, having essentially watched her mother and stepfather descend into drug induced squalor.  While Sookie loves her brother Jason, you don’t get the sense she relies on him the way Harper relies on her older stepbrother Tolliver.*  Most importantly, while Sookie kept her telepathic ability under wraps until her relationship with Bill forced her to develop it, Harper and Tolliver have created a small business where they offer her “consulting” services to law enforcement and grieving families.  They hire her. They pay her.  And they think she is touched by evil.

Not just a dark haired Sookie Stackhouse

Also in terms of the setting, while Harper has a supernatural ability, its origins are more mundane (a lightning strike when she was 15).  Further, unlike the Southern Vampire books, there doesn’t appear to supernatural societies of vampires, werewolves, shifters, faerie and the like.  Harper’s ability to feel the dead seems to be the only “supernatural” element thus far.

The actual mystery isn’t terribly unique–when Harper finds the dead girlfriend Sybil Teague’s (the richest woman in the Ozark town of Sarne) son Dell and finds she wasn’t killed by Dell in a murder suicide, she suddenly finds herself digging into the town’s deep dark secrets.  There are affairs and betrayals aplenty and while I had an idea who the killer was about halfway through based on process of elimination, I couldn’t put together exactly what that secret was until about 20 or 30 pages before the climax.

That being said, the books still has what to recommend it.  I enjoyed the relationship between Harper and Tolliver as they tried to piece together the town with the dark secret.  I liked that the book gave a plausible explanation as to why Harper and Tolliver had to stay even after they completed the task they were hired for (finding Dell’s girlfriend’s body and clearing Dell’s name).  Also, I appreciate Charlaine Harris’s ability to make good use of her small town settings, so much that they are characters in and of themselves.  I have never been to a small tourist town in the Ozarks, but I felt sufficiently transported there by the story.

Overall, a good mystery written with Harris’s usual wit and crispness.  Even if you figure out the deep secrets early on, you care enough about the characters that you still want to see how it plays out.  They are fast reads, good for a beach or a long car ride. And I certainly will follow Harper and Tolliver to Memphis (as is indicated at the end of Grave Sight) and read of their adventures there in Grave Surprise.

*There are four other siblings and stepsiblings.  One of them, a sister named Cameron, was kidnapped years prior and the ensuing media frenzy blew open the depraved lives Harper’s family was living.  There are three other sibling–Tolliver’s older brother Mark and Harper and Tolliver’ half siblings Mariella and Grace.  They do not play a huge role in this story, but the potential is set up for them to be in future books.