The Devotion of Suspect X

This crime novel by Keigo Higashino, an award-winning mega-hit in Japan, is not quite a mystery, not quite a thriller. We know who the killer is from the start and we know how and why the deed was done. And there’s not much in the way of action after the murder that launches the story. We follow the killer and her accomplice through the aftermath, and there are some elements of psychological suspense there. And we follow the police investigating the crime, a thread that has the flavor of a police procedural.

The crime at the center of the book is the murder of a man named Togashi, the no-good ex-husband of Yasuko, a single mom who works in a takeout lunch shop. When Togashi shows up demanding that Yasuko allow him back into her life, she and her teenage daughter, Misato, panic—and the result is murder. Enter the brilliant math teacher Ishigami, who lives next door to Yasuko and Misato and has been carrying a torch for Yasuko since she first moved in. He quickly realizes what has happened and steps in to help them cover up the crime, insisting all the while that with logical thinking, they can find a way out.

On the opposite side of the fence we have the detectives Kusanagi and Kishitani. Kusanagi is good friends with a physics professor named Yukawa, who often uses his skills at logic and observation to assist the police with their investigations. As soon as he learns Ishigami is a neighbor of the prime suspect in Togashi’s murder, he gets interested. The two were once university classmates, and Yukawa can’t get the possibility of a connection out of his head.

At the heart of the novel is the idea of loyalty, and the reader’s loyalty shifts repeatedly throughout the book. I didn’t want Yasuko to be sent to jail, but I also wanted the police to figure things out. My feelings about Ishigami changed from one chapter to the next. The ambiguity here is part of the fun. Not knowing whom to root for kept me reading, and rooting to some extent for everyone kept me invested in the story.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about the resolution. It’s dazzlingly clever, but it feels a little like a cheat. Just about any crime novel involves the holding back of some information, but some obfuscations strike me as more acceptable than others. This one definitely pushes the envelope, and I was initially irritated at the resolution, but I’m inclined to give Higashino a pass here because he drops lots of hints along the way. They just didn’t read like clues at the time—and isn’t that how some of the best crime novels work?

The book was translated into English by Alexander O. Smith, and it reads easily enough, but the dialogue is frequently choppy and stilted. That’s a shame, because there’s so much dialogue in the book. A lot of the information is conveyed not through characters’ actions but through their conversations, and the characters just don’t sound like people. I have no idea what the Japanese is like, but certain choices, such as the repeated use of “family restaurant” to describe a place where Yasuko meets a couple of other characters for meals, give the English an unnatural feel. I know what Yasuko means when she calls it a “family restaurant”—I’ve even seen the term on restaurant signs—but does anyone call them that when speaking? As I said, unnatural. It feels like a translation.

But the sometimes awkward writing isn’t enough to eliminate the entertainment value of this book. I had a good time reading it and whipped through it in just a couple of sittings. There are apparently several other books in Japanese about Yukawa the crime-solving physicist, and I don’t know that I’d race out to read another one if more are translated into English, but I wouldn’t balk at the idea. It was sufficiently entertaining, but not the best crime novel ever.

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13 Responses to The Devotion of Suspect X

  1. me. says:

    Many thanks for this synopsis, Keigo Higashino is an interesting author I’ve yet to read, I think I’ll give Naoko a read in the near future.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t heard anything about Naoko (other than that it’s his only other book translated into English), but he certainly seems to have a large following in Japan.

  2. This sounds really interesting — I would love to read more Japanese fiction in translation so I’ll have to look for this one. I have read Out by Natsuo Kirino which I found to be a real page turner.

  3. Steph says:

    This sounds like I fun! I know I’ve read it about it on another blog, but then I think I forgot about it rather quickly! I like it when authors take the traditional mystery/thriller format and turn it on its head… I have had some issues with translated fiction in the past (namely with clunky/awkward/uninspired prose), but I think if I keep that in mind and go into it expecting more from the plot than anything else, I’d probably like this one a good deal.

  4. Karoline says:

    I have this book on my TBR pile. It looks interesting and I’m going to give it a good. Great review!

  5. Violet says:

    This sounds interesting, but if the translation is clunky I would probably get irritated and quit. I guess it’s difficult to transpose a narrative from one language to another, but isn’t this what translators are paid to do? I do like Japanese lit though. I’ve put this on my ”maybe” list. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I felt almost like what was really needed was for an editor to come along behind the translator and make the English sound more natural. It was really only the dialogue that bothered me.

  6. chasing bawa says:

    I’ve seen the TV version of this and other stories featuring Prof. Yukawa (the series is called ‘Galileo’) which I really enjoyed because the explanations seemed really complex but haven’t actually read them. I didn’t know they had been translated into English. I must go and check them out!

    I actually thought Higashino had written a mystery featuring the Nobel Laureate Hideki Yukawa, a theoretical physicist, and was really excited about it but it wasn’t so (that’s just the historian of science in me trying to make non-existent connections!)

    The term ‘family restaurant’ is very common and denotes something like a diner where you can get a cheap western-style meal and most Japanese people shorten it to ‘fami-resu’ (Japanese people like to abbreviate everything!)

    • Teresa says:

      As far as I’ve been able to figure out, only one other of his books has been translated into English, and I don’t think it featured Prof. Yukawa. This one just came out here in the U.S. in the last couple of weeks.

      I can totally see how this would make a good TV series.

      And thanks for the insights about “family restaurant.” I figured there was some specific Japanese term he has in mind–in fact, I was thinking diner, which would sound more natural in English. That’s the tricky thing about translation, isn’t it? Is it better to use the exact equivalent or to try to make it sound natural in the second language?

  7. Pingback: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino « chasing bawa

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