The Devotion of Suspect X is as much a story of obsessive love as it is a crime thriller. Published in Japanese in 2005, it became one of the biggest-selling books in the country’s history partly because of the page-turning plot, which keeps readers fumbling for answers until practically the last page. In that sense, it is a classic mystery, baited with clues to guide readers towards the solution and decoys to throw them from the scent. In the blurb, the publishers of the new English translation challenge the reader to guess an ending they say is impossible to see coming.
Certainly, the plot is taut and intriguing. So is the mental tussle between Ishigami, a socially awkward maths genius, and Yukawa, a former classmate turned crime-unravelling physicist. But it is Ishigami’s devotion to his next-door neighbour, Yasuko, that is the book’s emotional motor.
This psychological driver sets it apart from more run-of-the-mill crime thrillers. Yet the emotional outlines are not as surely drawn as the plot-led story.
Keigo Higashino’s prose – spare, almost skeletal – proves better suited to the gum-shoe aspect of the novel than to its emotional hinterland.
Ishigami is obsessed with maths but unable to cope all that well with life. Though he is brilliant, he has never landed himself anything more than a mediocre teaching job.
Though he is capable of unselfish love, he is awkward with women. His obsession – or devotion, as the book’s title would have it – for Yasuko, an attractive single mother, is part sweet and part creepy. The drama of the book is as much about working out the precise nature of his mental state as solving the mystery.
Most of the external, physical drama is, in any case, over by the end of the first chapter. Yasuko, a shop assistant, is being pursued by her ex-husband, a brutish man who threatens her and her daughter with violence. His menacing gets out of hand and, by page 18, he is lying dead on Yasuko’s tatami rush-matting floor, strangled with an electric chord. We don’t miss him.
Ishigami, who lives next door to Yasuko in the genteel poverty of their cramped apartment block, hears the scuffle through the paper-thin walls. The book has a very strong sense of place: it is set in the more down-at-heel eastern Tokyo, near the Edogawa river, not in the glamorous city of skyscrapers, neon lights and Michelin-starred restaurants known to most visitors.
This is what used to be called the “low town”, where people lead an old-fashioned existence in claustrophobic familiarity, and where strangled corpses are not that easy to hide.
The setting affords us a view of a Japan where money is tight and where there are social problems, including domestic violence and homelessness.
Ishigami quickly pieces together what went on, using the powers of logic and deduction he subsequently marshals to outfox the police – and the reader. He makes it his task to dispose of the body, to provide Yasuko and her daughter with a credible alibi and to hide the real nature of the crime.
His solution is brilliant. But he doesn’t count on the attention of Yukawa, a contemporary from the Imperial University, who uses his knowledge of Ishigami and his own deductive reasoning to pursue the truth. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of wits between the two friends that keeps the reader racing through the book.
Yasuko is meanwhile courted by a man who met her when she was a nightclub hostess. He offers her the prospect of a settled life should she escape the murder charge, but his attentions also threaten to trigger Ishigami’s jealousy. We begin to suspect we know the true Ishigami when letters start arriving warning Yasuko to stay away from her new suitor. That, too, proves something of a false trail.
In the tear-soaked finale, worthy of a Victorian melodrama, the truth about Ishigami and Yasuko is finally revealed. The solution leaves a moral question hanging but never properly addressed. In the end, the ingenuity of the plot is not quite matched by the credibility of the inner drama. Agatha Christie would be mightily impressed. George Eliot less so.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander, Little, Brown, RRP£12.99, 348 pages