Fiction - paperback; Little, Brown; 374 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith, with Elye J. Alexander. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
To what lengths would you go to cover up a murder? For maths teacher Ishigami — "Suspect X" of the title — the answer is absolutely everything. This is despite the fact that he is innocent of the crime in question. His motivation is nothing more than love — and an obsession with mathematical puzzles.
In this extraordinary crime thriller, which has been a major sensation in its native Japan and turned into a cult film, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don't know is the detailed steps Ishigami undertakes to protect the real murderer.
According to Kishitani's report, the body had been left in a sorry state. It had been stripped of clothes, shoes, even socks. The face had been smashed — like a split melon, the young detective had said, which was more than enough to make Kusanagi queasy. The fingers had been burned, too, completely destroying any fingerprints. The corpse was male. Marks around the neck indicated he had been strangled. There were no other wounds apparent on the rest of the body.
And therein lies the mystery of The Devotion of Suspect X, one of the best plotted crime novels I've ever read. How did Ishigami move the body? What is the bicycle doing near it? And how is it possible for him to always be one step ahead of the police?
The story is effectively one giant riddle, but it's an intelligent riddle. If we understand that to solve a crime you must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, then it follows that to create the perfect crime you must work backwards and mix real clues in with red herrings so that it cannot be solved.
This is what Ishigami, a mathematician who gave up a promising academic career to teach maths to high school students, does: he treats the crime as a mathematical problem that only a genius could solve. But his one-time rival, the university physicist Yukawa, who unofficially helps Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police with the investigation, may be the only one smart enough to figure it all out.
Intelligent plotting and a fast-paced narrative
What I loved about the story — aside from the wonderful characters, the detached prose style and the evocative Tokyo setting — was the intelligence of the plotting and the way in which the tension increases the further you get into the story. Yasuko, the woman who committed the crime, is told to simply follow Ishigami's instructions. While she does this blindly, her nervousness is palpable throughout and you know that it won't be long before she puts a foot wrong and the police are on to her.
And then there's the competitive element with Yukawa, the only man intelligent enough to figure out what Ishigiami is up to: will he solve the case before the police?
With such a taut narrative it's hard not to keep turning the pages.
But while it might be easy to dismiss The Devotion of Suspect X as nothing more than a clever puzzle to be solved, the author explores the repercussions of the crime on the people most closely involved in it. He makes them flesh-and-blood real, with foibles, flaws and fears — and at times you don't know whether you should feel pity or condemnation for them.
The real success of the novel, however, lies in the impossible-to-guess climax. I found myself completely in awe of the way in which Higashino drew everything together so neatly and still managed to provide an utterly unexpected ending, completely out of left-field.
Is it any wonder more than two million copies of this book have been sold in Japan alone: it is a masterpiece of authorial restraint, concept and plotting. More please.