Book review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X
by Keigo Higashino
translated by Alexander O Smith with Elye Alexander
Little, Brown UK, 2011 (first published in Japan 2005)

Set in Tokyo, this novel is about the investigation of a crime and the psychological effects of guilt and suspicion on those involved in it. The crime itself is the murder of Togashi, ex-husband of Yasuko, a youngish woman who works in a bento shop (snack bar providing takeaway lunches). The reader knows who committed the murder and why, but not the details of how the crime was covered up to avoid detection.

The police, led by Kishitani, become involved when someone reports a dead body down at the river. First, the corpse has to be identified via missing-persons reports. This causes Kishitani to focus on Yasuko, her friends, employers and neighbours. One neighbour (in fact the only one mentioned in the book as being interviewed), a mathematics teacher called Ishigami, inadvertently reveals that he is an alumnus of Imperial University, where Kishitani also studied (sociology), and where he frequently goes to consult a friend and kind of Sherlock Holmes figure, Yukawa, who has helped on previous cases via his scientific insights. It turns out that Ishigami and Yukawa were old classmates who have lost touch, so Yukawa reconnects with his friend and begins to make his own enquiries about the murder, as he comes to suspect that Ishigami is somehow involved. In the meantime, the official investigation continues in parallel, as Yasuko finds herself sinking further and further into deception and away from the “normal” life she craves for herself and her daughter.

The plot of the novel is clever, in that the reader begins one step ahead of the police but gradually realises that the story is more complex than a simple crime and a cover-up. However, the author maintains a narrow focus so there is a lot of information that we aren’t told. Why are there so many avoidable holes in people’s alibis and accounts of what happened on the fateful night? What is the significance of events that seem not to fit with anything previously told to the reader, for example why a particular bicycle was stolen? While the detectives accrue evidence and witnesses, fear and paranoia escalate among the subjects of the investigation, until all is revealed in a double-twist ending (part of which is a bit of a cheat).

Despite the neat ways the author makes mathematical study an allegory for the story, including Ishigami’s gradual disillusion with the discipline as he comes to realise you can’t apply mathematics to everything in the world (as most of us already know), I did not engage with this book. The prose is flat and the text is written in colloquial American style, so all the characters think in American slang and descriptions are Americanised, ruining a great deal of the atmosphere that would have been provided by use of Japanese words and phrases instead of them being substituted for their American equivalents*. The characters are two-dimensional, with important avenues left unexplored. This is most marked in the case of Yasuko’s young daughter, the character whose role in the story interested me the most, and whose dramatic actions bookend the plot – she is basically ignored. Unfortunately, I found the whole thing rather boring and neither cared about nor was moved by the final revelation — because none of the characters seemed like real, three-dimensional people.

I borrowed this book from the library.

*Via Jackie of Farm Lane Books, there are minor variants between the UK and US editions, eg “maths” and “math”, respectively, but the overwhelming sense of the UK edition is of an American book.

Read other (positive) reviews of The Devotion of Suspect X: Euro Crime, Farm Lane Books, The Independent, Reading Matters, Mean Streets, Yet Another Crime Fiction blog, The Crime Segments and, the only one of these reviewers who liked the book as little as I did, Reactions to Reading. Incidentally, the Reactions to Reading review provides many details of errors and holes in the plot, for those who would like some evidence of these, as I did not provide them in my review.