A Mathematical Genius, An Unspoken Love and the Art of Alibis

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

– Galileo Galilei

Keigo Higashino’s first novel to be translated into the English language depicts a murder plot, but not as far as conventional murder mysteries are followed. With an almost frank, easy narrative, the novel shows from its start who has committed the murder – but this fact is almost inconsequential to the plot itself. The intrigue of the novel hinges, rather, on how the main character Yasusko, with the assistance of her neighbour Ishigami, manages to get away with her crime, and the twists which ensue as a result. So begins a battle of brains, as mathematics genius Ishigami constructs elaborate strategies, careful alibis and red herrings to throw off the police force. However, always close at his heels is his old university alumni and friend, the scientist Yukawa along with the detective Kusanagi, who carefully unpick and unravel the discrepancies they find, always playing a game of psychological cat and mouse.

Interspersed between the academia of Tokyo, its homeless inhabitants and shanty towns, and the glamour of night clubs and evening hostesses, Higashino mixes the ordinary domestic setting of contemporary Japan with the undercurrents of the darker side of human traits, as well as exploring how far boundaries can be pushed. While there are some characters who are placed into almost typecast roles; Yusoko as the beautiful, reserved ex-hostess-come-lunchshop-worker, unaware of her own beauty, her angst-ridden teenaged daughter, the adoring admirer Mr Kudo and even Togashi, the malicious ex-husband placed into a ‘villain’ role, the other characters in the novel are far less easy to pigeonhole.

The intrigue of The Devotion of Suspect X lies primarily with the character of Ishigami, a mathematical genius who becomes the novel’s anti-hero. Logical, clinical, and the subject of the book’s title, his “devotion” to his neighbour Yasuko ensures that his role is not as black and white as it may appear. Initially being introduced as a quiet, unemotional man who teaches high school maths to school-children, Ishigami’s lonely and unassuming lifestyle is abruptly interrupted when his silent, one-sided romance fantasy for Yusoko, the single mother who lives next-door to him, erupts into real-life drama, evoking his protective instincts to protect both mother and daughter. Thus the novel intensifies into a clever psychological novel, as Ishigami tries to outwit the police while simultaneously attempting to continue his fantasised romance with Yusoko. While Ishigami becomes, to all extents and purposes, Yusoko’s accomplice in her crime, the likeability of his character and his cool, calm logic gives a depth to his character which not only makes him the most interesting of all the characters, but shows how his relentless plotting and fierce loyalty makes him “an adversary to be feared”.

And yet his brilliant genius and his detached outlook in life makes him a very isolated figure, alienated from his bleak surroundings and unable to escape the mediocrity of life, aware that he is part of the “cogs of society” as equally as he wishes to escape from it. The poetic irony of a math genius teaching bored school children with no desire to learn best epitomises Ishigami’s anxiety; each party are trapped in their individual boredom, and yet forced by society to play their part. It is this kind of characterisation which allows Higashino to successfully garner sympathy and appeal for his lonely character, as readers are able to see Ishigami’s desire to break free from social impositions (“How wonderful it would be to forget everything else, all other considerations, all the time sinks of daily life!”)

Parallel to Ishigami’s character, following the clues and elaborate psychology are his counterparts, the detective leading the muder case Kusanagi and his old friend Yukawa, and indeed they prove themselves to be Ishigami’s worthy equals. Although they are stark contrasts to the almost emotion-less Ishigami, showing amiable, approachable personalities and light-hearted humour through the plot, this by no means undermines their own talent, as they are quick to notice clues, progressing the case by following both intuition and rational evidence.
Similarly to Ishigami, the theme of logic and intellect continues here, as we see how the unravelling of an ordinary murder case becomes something more extraordinary. And always likened to this contest of genius, and the strange mystery behind the murder case is the metaphor of ‘math problems’, which represents the ultimate joy and test of intellect for intelligent Ishigami and Yukawa, even as they both unknowingly pit against each other in the murder case. Higashino does well not to ‘dumb down’ the mathematical theories in this novel: although some of us may not fully follow the academic side of it all, it presents a philosophical slant to the novel, exposing the mindsets of the men and adding further depth to them.

Looping the characters and the scenes of the novel together in a way so that only the readers are able to see how the grand picture links together, the narrative remains descriptive yet frank, reflecting the powerful yet quiet emotions in true Japanese tone. Alongside the themes of logic and mystery runs the feelings of love, showing how even though it is not as dramatic, it’s impact is still always as important. And it is this which shows that perhaps there is no real villain here, by questioning our perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, Higashino also makes us question our values when it comes to loyalty and devotions. In the midst of oppression – by men, work roles and conducts, social rules – we see how this unfaltering “devotion” and the power of ishigami’s love becomes something to admire. This is not an ordinary murder mystery, nor is it a conventional love story, yet the compelling characters, unspoken powerful emotions and sense of admirable respect establish this novel in a genre of its own, examining both the human mind and the heart.

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (Little, Brown: London 2011) pp.374 £12.99

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