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.
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.