Keigo Higashino's dismantling of a beautiful impulse

by Chunxu Ma

X marks the Devotion

The Devotion of Suspect X is not your standard mystery novel, where there is a crime, an investigation, and a solution. Instead, Keigo Higashino practically tells you in the first chapter who the killer is, why he did it, and how he’ll be caught. You’re probably asking yourself, why bother reading a mystery when there’s no mystery at all. To your surprise, the next 17 chapters will prove you wrong: there is a mystery and it’s quite unnerving and complex. And if you’re alert you might ask, “devotion to whom? And what’s with the X?” That’s the most brilliant part of Higashino’s design: the X is more than a little scary, and it’s scary because of how worthy and laudable it is, even for a murderer.

From the mystery itself, to the detective named after the great Italian scientist Galileo, and to Higashino’s crazy ideas of guilt and innocence, nothing is as it seems in this world of an obvious murder. Of course, naming the detective Galileo is more than a big clue. It suggests a certain way of looking at the world. Galileo was the first person to definitely prove that the earth rotated around the sun. For that the Catholic Church tortured him and demanded that he recant his work. Higashino’s use of Galileo is a sly nod to sticking to the truth no matter what the authorities say. In Japan, which is an incredibly hierarchal society, being committed to truth is often difficult. The story shows how the detective Galileo goes back and forth between upholding both justice and morality, which surprisingly enough are often in conflict.

Simple, but not really
The plot is deceptively simple. Yasuko Hanaoka is a divorced single mother who works at a restaurant. Ishigami is a highly talented mathematics teacher, who lives next door to Yasuko and her daughter Misato. When Yasuko's ex-husband, Togashi, shows up to extort money from Yasuko, threatening both mother and daugther, the situation quickly escalates to violence, and Yasuko and her daughter kill Togashi. Overhearing the commotion, Ishigami, who secretly loves Yasuko offers his help in disposing of the body and tell them how to cover-up the murder step-by-step.

Detective Galileo, Manabu Yukawa, who is investigating the case, is also an old college friend of Ishigami, and they share a commitment to extreme logic and the notion of honor and sacrifice. After meeting him after so many years, Yukawa becomes convinced that Ishigami is involved with the murder. The closer he gets to the truth, the less he wants to know of it because of his spiritual connection to his old friend. When Yukawa finally understands Ishigami's plans, he is awestruck by the devotion shown by Ishigami to Yasuko and her daughter.

Ishigami is not the person he seems to be: “He was a heavyset man, with a big, round face that made his small eyes looks thin as threads. His hair was thinning and cut short, making him look nearly fifty, thought he might easily have been much younger.” The only thing Ishigami cares about is the idea of devotion and finding just one moment of purity—in this case, that means the idea of Yasuko and her daughter smiling. It is the kind of romantic sacrifice that only crazy, logic-oriented men engage in, but one the detective fully appreciates, also being a crazy, logic-oriented man. The detective knows the solution because it’s the same one he would have come up with himself.

Logic can kill
When the mother and daughter kill the ex-husband, Ishigami knows what happened and what he must do. And when Yukawa understands the situation, he too understands everything. It’s both logical and the work of someone who is completely deranged and that’s Higashino’s genius as a mystery writer—to make us see the mania and then turn that recognition into a cat and mouse game of detective.

What we become privileged to is the failure of an honorable person. His logic and desire to help nearly destroys everyone. When Ishigami meets the mother and daughter for the first time, he thinks, “ I have never met someone with such lovely eyes as them, Sunday is the most beautiful day.” He seems creepy, but the book will prove you wrong. In Japanese culture, there is an important quality called guarding, which means more than simply watching out for someone. It is about sacrifice and caring and protecting the spirit of the weaker. Ishigani doesn’t even imagine having a relationship with them. For him, all that matters is protecting them and being devoted to their cause.

In need of devotion or not?
Let’s go back to the word “devotion.” Devotion is an odd word for a mystery, because it suggests that you want to protect the other person with your life. It also implies a closeness and desire to be near someone. Only Higashino would take such a nice feeling and turn it into something sinister and murderous. The suspect, the person we should fear the most in a murder mystery, is the one who shows the most devotion.

In the end, the plot takes a sharp turn, and a new mystery emerges: Why is Suspect X doing something so completely unexpected? After all, he is just a neighbor, the neighbor who not only helps to cover a murder, but also precisely “calculates” the questions and doubt the police and detective will experience. Ishigami prepares the perfect answer—the alibi—but misses one thing that logic and devotion can never account for: the big whole of despair that murder opens.

©Chunxu Ma and the CCA Arts Review

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