Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Japanese Mystery

(translated by Alexander O. Smith)

I debated with myself for a long while over whether to give this detective novel a 9. I haven't given any book a 9 here yet. I worry that if I start giving out high scores, like a 9, I won't stop. The Blitz Rating system will become diluted. My carefully constructed edifice of infallible book analysis will come crashing down. The Devotion of Suspect X will then have become a Japanese tsunami obliterating this blog. It could happen!-- if I'm not careful about giving out high scores.

Plus, there's a case to be made against the book. Not a strong case, mind you, but it's there.

For one thing, the pacing of the novel is deliberate , even slow. There are two detectives, one official and one unofficial, Kusanagi, veteran detective of the Tokyo Police, and his friend Yukawa, a genius physicist at the local university. It's a classic pairing of professional and amateur. Much of the narrative involves undramatic discussion between Yukawa and Kusanagi, over the case they're pondering, and also the related question of intuition versus logic.

There aren't a lot of fireworks in the book. No car chases or melodrama. I can't say there's no emotion. No, I can't say that, though a good part of the book is almost clinical in tone. Our two analysts spend much time analyzing the case, and their opponent, a mathematics teacher who's something of a genius himself. It's a chess game, with much positioning of pawns.

What else?

Well, the names of the characters can be confusing. Kusanagi and Kishatani. Yasuko and Yukawa. What up with that?

What of the book's strengths?

The novel, and thus the mystery, is written with great clarity. It's right there in front of you. Right there! The language, the description, the narrative-- nothing is hidden. Or if it is, it's hidden in plain sight. I loved the clarity. You feel after awhile that you're looking at a chess board. Keigo Higashino has total control over his material.

That material is in perfect balance. How rare this is! The sections of the book, beginning, middle, and end, are in proportion. No overblown finish with dead bodies everywhere, or five different climaxes. Nothing goofy. No authorial desperation to find a way out. Higashino knows the way out. He understands that less is more.

This is a detective novel, but it's also literature. This is the kind of thing long-ago genre authors like Eric Ambler used to accomplish. The proportion gives the overall work aesthetic impact beyond the mere words of the book.

Two other points should be mentioned. In Agatha Christie fashion, Higashino pulls off an unexpected solution. You can't believe it's coming, but Higashino does it. A genuine surprise, if surprise is the right word. I can't tell you-- or if you're a long-time reader, maybe I can-- how unusual this is. How difficult, at a time when all stories have been written.

Second-- and this is as much of a surprise-- Keigo Higashino approaches Simenon level with his understanding of people, his portrayal of character. He nears the highest level. It's a surprise because for much of the novel the characters don't seem particularly deep at all. Aha! Higashino sneaks up on the reader. And he makes it so believable! This isn't a "psychological" detective novel. It's too smart, too subtle, for that designation. It never hits you over the head. The book's impact sneaks in elsewhere. Maybe into your soul. You're left at the end shaking your head, feeling the impact. How does he do that? There are no over-the-top action sequences, yet the novel closes with an emotional bang. This is fine, fine work.

I believe I'll give it a 9 after all.

PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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