Salvation of a Saint

Many of you know how much I enjoyed and admired Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X which I read last year. In the interim, a drama series based on his short stories, Higashino Keigo Mysteries, aired in Japan and I watched with glee as he deconstructed the various mystery tropes that make up the successful crime writer’s arsenal.

And so I couldn’t wait to read Salvation of a Saint which once again featured the maverick and eccentric Detective Galileo aka phyics Professor Manabu Yukawa of the fictional Teito University in Tokyo who is invaluable in assisting the police investigations of his college friend, Detective Kusanagi. I was also delighted to see the appearance of Kusanagi’s deputy, Detective Kaoru Utsumi, who is one of the main characters in the tv series Galileo which aired in Japan in 2007 and which was my first introduction to Higashino’s mysteries.

Unlike in The Devotion of Suspect X, Professor Yukawa only makes an appearance from Chapter 9. The action is focused more on the police investigation into the murder of Yoshitaka Mashiba, a wealthy businessman with a beautiful wife, Ayane, who is a successful patchwork artist and teacher and a much younger lover, Hiromi Wakayama, who also happens to be his wife’s apprentice. But on that fateful weekend, Ayane was in Sapporo visiting her aging parents and Mashiba was supposedly alone. Told in flashbacks, the back story of the characters are slowly revealed in tandem with the progression of the investigation. When Utsumi suspects that her superior, Kusanagi, is being emotionally swayed by the captivatingly tragic Ayane, she calls upon Yukawa for his assistance. For the detectives are baffled at the inexplicable manner of Mashiba’s death and are unable to find any clues.

Unlike a conventional crime thriller, we are given a small number of suspects right from the beginning who are then slowly narrowed down as the police uncover clues. Higashino seems more interested in fleshing out the motives of each character through their interaction with the victim and unraveling the final trick with which the murder, if it can be proved, was carried out. Like with The Devotion of Suspect X, the mechanism of this trick is deceptively clever, if not slightly simpler as is the story itself which is a straightforward crime passionel.

This is a quiet book where the violence has already happened and the characters are dealing with the aftermath, all the while fending off prying questions by the police. There are no conflicts that are about to erupt. Everything is kept in check by the suspects. But this, contrarily ratchets up the tension because you aren’t exactly sure how the characters are going respond. Will they continue to put up a brave face or will they crack?

The mystery and the characters were satisfying but I am still unsure about the narrative structure and whether the flashbacks provided a cohesive plot. In some ways, I would have preferred if Higashino had embedded the characters’ pasts into the general narrative instead of giving us chunks in between which would have provided a more seamless reading experience.

The other thing of which I would have liked a little more explanation was the rift in Yukawa and Kusanagi’s relationship which I am suspecting happened in the previous book but which I seem to have forgotten.

Although I preferred The Devotion of Suspect X because of its sheer, shocking ingenuity, Salvation of a Saint is a solid crime novel providing you with a glimpse of affluent Tokyo and flawless houses that hide seething emotions just below the surface. Keigo Higashino’s work is hugely popular in Japan with a second series of Galileo and a film set to be released this year so I’m excited to see his novels featuring Prof. Yukawa appearing in English. I can’t wait to read more!

I would like to thank the lovely people at Little Brown who kindly sent me copy of Salvation of a Saint to review.

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Along with Miyuki Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino, Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s foremost writers of mysteries and I’ve been meaning to try some of his books which he publishes at a prolific rate. Of course, that would mean slogging through the Japanese which, let me tell you, is no mean feat for someone whose knowledge of kanji is akin to a primary school student. I really need to study more. So when I spotted Teresa’s review of The Devotion of Suspect X, I knew I had to get my hands on this one. I’m a huge fan of Galileo, the Japanese tv series based on Higashino’s short stories featuring the genius physicist Manabu Yukawa (called Detective Galileo by his police friend) so was thrilled to see he featured in this new English tranlsation. It was only after the first few pages that I realised I had actually seen the film version of The Devotion of Suspect X a few years ago on a flight to Japan. But the thing about Higashino’s stories is that his plots are pretty intricate, following the rules of logic and science, that I knew I’d probably forgotten howdunnit.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, we meet Yasuko Hanaoka who lives with her daughter, Misato, in a small flat and works at a local bento shop providing takeaway lunches for hungry workers. When her ex-husband, Togashi, comes looking for her and causing trouble, she finds herself in a nightmare situation with a now dead ex-husband and her quiet and unremarkable life with her daughter in ruins. When her solitary neighbour, Ishigami, offers to help her dispose of the body, she is unable to refuse. For Ishigami isn’t just a high school, he’s also a mathematical genius.

This isn’t a mystery in the conventional sense where we happen upon a dead body and the detectives look for clues to unravel the killer. We already know who died and who killed him and who disposed of the body. What I found interesting was the way Higashino goes through the detectives search while simultaneously showing us how Yasuko and Ishigami deal with staying a step ahead. The only unknown quantity is Manabu Yukawa, assistant prof at Tokyo’s Imperial University and Ishigami’s classmate from 20 years ago who happens to be a friend of the investigating detective, Kusanagi. Yukawa himself is a slightly eccentric experimental physicist who is happy to have found his friend again with whom he can talk shop. But this is where things go wrong for Ishigami as Yukawa is also a scientific genius who can see things in ways that an ordinary person perhaps can’t.

Apart from Ishigami’s modus operandi and his strategies to solving the problem of Yasuko’s predicament, perhaps the thing I found most interesting about the novel were the characters. On one hand you have the usual suspects: Yasuko, a strong yet fragile woman who has managed to claw her way out of working in a hostess bar and an abusive husband to live a quiet life with her daughter; Ishigami, a loner who is secretly in love with his beautiful neighbour; Kusanagi, the usual detective. But then there is Yukawa who, although I admit, is also stereotyped as a physicist with free will, provides the human face to the eternal dilemmas faced by people and the consequences of their actions. Crime novels are often described as the perfect vehicle to examine the human condition and it’s all there in Higashino’s novel. Although set in contemporary Tokyo, there is a distinct old world feel to Higashino’s novel, reminiscent of the mysteries of Akimitsu Takagi such as The Tattoo Murder Mystery (which I recommend strongly!) with the detective and professor sleuthing combo, something which I find comforting yet still riveting. Now I’m itching to read his short story collections for more intricate problem solving.

The translation by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander didn’t cause me any issues once I got passed the use of math instead of maths. Teresa pointed out the stilted nature of the dialogue and I’m not sure whether that’s the way Higashino writes or because of the translation. In some ways I’ve come to expect translations of Japanese fiction to sound a certain way.

I admit I have a weakness for a bit of maths and physics in my fiction (as separate from sf, which I also like), and if it’s in a mystery, even better. I also misleadingly thought that Yukawa was somehow related to Hideki Yukawa, Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in Physics. I know, I like to see connections where none exist.

On an aside, the tv series Galileo introduced a female detective to go sleuthing with the dashing Yukawa instead of his friend Detective Kusanagi, although he does make cameo appearances. Hmm. At least it works.

I’d like to thank the lovely people at Little, Brown who kindly sent me a copy of to review. The Devotion of Suspect X will be published in August 2011 so put it in your diaries!

I read this as part of In Spring It Is The Dawn’s Hello Japan! May mini-challenge: Mystery and Mayhem. I know I’m a little late but I just wanted to share!

And it’s also my first offering for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5!