The Devotion of Suspect X

January in JapanPerhaps this is not quite the literary work that Tony had in mind when he proposed the January in Japan reading month. It’s crime fiction, so it combines my love of a (fictional) criminal life with my love for Japanese authors. But, above all, it is a love story of a very unusual kind, something that Japanese literature excels in.

I had never heard of Keigo Higashino when I downloaded a copy of ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’. I let it sit on my e-reader for a while: perhaps the blurb ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ put me off? But then I heard this novel had been nominated for awards both at home and abroad, and several bloggers I trust also gave it the thumbs up. (A couple did not like it, though, which made me all the more curious to read it.)

DevotionI am used by now to the challenges of translating well from Japanese. A simple, unadorned style becomes flat and lifeless in English and yes, the American slang was slightly disconcerting. However, setting that aside, I found much to like about this book. It is not a flashy thriller with wacky surreal elements in the style of Murakami (either of the two, Haruki or Ryu), nor is it relentlessly dark and hopeless like a Natsuo Kirino novel. This is an apparently simple story of cat and mouse, slightly reminiscent of ‘Crime and Punishment’. A murder is committed, somewhat accidentally, within the first few pages of the book. Single mother Yasuko and her daughter are distraught and rely on the help of their next-door neighbour Ishigami to cover up the crime. The rest of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel their alibi. Police detective Kusanagi feels something is not quite right about the scenario, and finally turns to his friend, physicist and amateur detective Yukawa, for help. It turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami knew each other in college, and they engage in a rather chilling battle of wits.

It’s not just the puzzle which I find intriguing (and the author manages to keep a few tricks up his sleeve), but the way in which guilt, sense of duty, obligation and affection affects these rather lonely characters and draws them to one another. I had a strong sense of sadness while reading this, feeling sorry for all the people involved, especially those who are deluded enough to believe that logic alone can triumph. The ‘unknowability’ of human feelings always interferes and spoils the best-laid plans.

This book should be more palatable to Western audiences than Kirino, yet it still retains enough Japanese characteristics to make it a quirky read, rather different from standard crime fiction fare.

24 thoughts on “The Devotion of Suspect X”

  1. Marina Sofia – I think you hit on something important in your post. This novel shows the reality of people caught in situations that aren’t entirely of their own making. That aspect of it adds to the suspense as well as the sadness of the story.

    1. Yes, there was a feel of Greek tragedy to it all: people caught up in something they cannot change, trying to manipulate fate, but ultimately having to succumb to it. I’m not quite sure I would call it fatalistic, but it certainly adds to the story, as you say.

  2. The book was distributed to any number of Indian bloggers last year -or was it the year before?- and it was impossible not to come across a review at every other blog out here. I know couple of them who are dead honest and can be trusted for their tastes and they approved it right away. Now you have confirmed it here, of course. I shall surely check it out now.

    1. Ha, interesting – I don’t think it quite hit the blogging or reading radar here in Europe, so I wonder why they targeted India specifically? (Hopefully it was not one of those lumping together of all Asians…) But maybe I’ve just been out of things: I generally like to wait for the fuss to die down before reading certain books.

  3. I was one of those who was less thrilled by this book. I found all the stuff about the murderer(s) interesting and involving, but found the detection side of it very unsatisfying and repetitive. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either, I’m afraid.

    1. Yes, not quite the solid police procedural we are used to, I agree. I like this about Japanese fiction – it doesn’t conform to our expectations, although at times this can make it impenetrable or infuriating.

  4. Liked it, and agree with your points. It provides an unusual read for us Westerners — a good thing.

    Salvation of a Saint is excellent, almost like a Sherlock Holmes in terms of examining the tiniest bits of evidence.

    1. I think I’ll have to read that too! And this book was unusual without being too uncomfortable – which is what some of the other Japanese books I’ve read lately have been.

  5. Oh, this is so intriguing. Japanese literature, especially the modern writers, are apt to throw a wrench into our expectations about literature, crime literature, love stories, etc. LOL! Have been so immersed in medieval works, mostly from 8th century onwards, and that is of course a very different horse~ However, some of the modern writers of fiction are also some of the freshest writers. I have some anthologies, collections of short stories, and I have to say that when I first read them, they either were unsatisfying or just plain weird to me. The approach to fiction I find very different from our Western tastes, however, reading Ruth Benedict’s work, her explanations of ‘giri’, Japanese culture helps.

    Writers like Yukio Mishima, Kawabata (especially “Beauty and Sadness”) Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, etc…give a sense of where and how modern Japanese literature is going, or has gone, and this is exciting. One of the best in my opinion to start with is Donald Keene’s wonderful “Anthology of Japanese Literature”.

    Perhaps I backed into the modern writers, but they are so diverse and rich. And as we get a bit more involved, even Miyazawa Kenji becomes understandable. I hated his “A Future of Ice” when I first read it. Now? It’s a book in the rereading that I have come to at least appreciate. I do believe that we can’t become good writers when we have closed ourselves off from the modern culture of modern Japanese writers. They certainly have surprises, and new approaches in their writings.

    Lady Nyo

  6. I couldn’t agree more. There is an incredible richness and difference there, even when they tackle Western subjects and styles. For instance, I have heard that Murakami Haruki is very Western in style, but (although he reminds me a little at times of French surrealism) there is still so much that is uniquely Japanese about him. I mean, a paen to a girl’s perfect ears?
    So you like Japanese medieval literature? Which in particular? Genji Monogatari (especially the last few Uji chapters) is one of my favourite works of literature ever. I think I have about 5 different versions of it in my library.

  7. No, not one for me, but I know many people loved this 🙂 In fact, I think you’re wrong in saying that it didm’t make a splash – I had the impression that it was fairly big in the UK…

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