Latest from Japan’s top detective novelist: Elementary!
By Steve Donoghue,
On Friday evening, arrogant Tokyo CEO Yoshitaka Mashiba and his wife, Ayane, are getting ready to host a small dinner for three guests at their apartment, but they’re arguing. Yoshitaka has callously informed his wife that since she can’t have children, he’s going to end their new marriage and find a woman who can. As they’re going downstairs, Ayane glances at her dresser and thinks about the white powder hidden there in a plastic bag. Guess I’ll be using that soon, she thinks.
The guests are another married couple and Ayane’s apprentice at her successful patchwork quilting studio — and also, unbeknownst to her, Yoshitaka’s mistress. The party breaks up, and Ayane leaves the next morning to visit her parents in Sapporo, far to the north. The mistress comes back to the apartment, spends the night and leaves in the morning after sharing some coffee with her lover. When she returns Sunday night, she finds Yoshitaka sprawled dead on his living room floor, spilled coffee (laced with arsenous acid) by his side. Enter gruff Detective Kusanagi and his spunky female junior partner, Detective Utsumi.
If the wronged wife poisoned her husband, how did she manage it from hundreds of miles away, especially without also poisoning the visiting mistress? And if the mistress somehow wanted her lover dead, why did she leave behind the tea cup and kettle with their incriminating arsenic traces?
Such is the promising premise of “Salvation of a Saint,” a crime thriller by Keigo Higashino, whose renown in Japan — dozens of novels, TV shows, movies — has reached such proportions as to make James Patterson seem a bit bashful. Minotaur, Higashino’s American publisher, would clearly like to extend that renown to Western readers, and those readers are clearly receptive: The 2011 English translation of Higashino’s 2005 novel, “The Devotion of Suspect X,” was an Edgar Award finalist.
Which might go a ways toward proving that they give out Edgar nominations in cereal boxes these days, since both “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” — which are the first two novels in a developing series — are fairly plodding affairs. (When Kusanagi is informed that forensics experts found well over a lethal dose of poison in the body, he thinks that “the possibility of this being an accidental death was rapidly approaching zero,” and the reader slumps a little). Both books are saved from complete uniformity by the addition of quirky physics professor Manabu Yukawa, the “Detective Galileo” for whom this series is named, an eccentric deus ex machina who reviews all the evidence the cops (and the readers) have assembled and then spits out theory after outlandish theory until one happens to stick. He’s Dr. House, only with crime instead of disease.
Fans of by-the-numbers police procedurals will appreciate “Salvation of a Saint” precisely because of how effectively Higashino writes that kind of thing. But this will make them all the more impatient with the presence of a faux-Holmesian interloper like Detective Galileo. A few pleasingly byzantine plot twists at the climax notwithstanding, the book’s almost provokingly sedentary pace leaves no doubt that Kusanagi, scorning his partner’s “female intuition,” and Utsumi, gamely challenging his assumptions, would have identified and caught the killer on their own. There’s no clock ticking on the solution, no urgency whatsoever (the suspects spend all their time cooperating, for Pete’s sake), no dramatic need for a preening expert to save the day.
At one point this expert tells Kusanagi that he’s figured out how the killer administered the poison, but he’s not going to tell the police. Turns out he has the cops’ best interests at heart: “Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I explained the trick to you now. If, later on, we found some trace that proved the trick had been used, no problem. But what if we don’t? Would you be able to reset your thinking at that point?” Kusanagi grumbles but doesn’t object. That sort of thing might well be runaway popular among Japan’s mystery fans these days, but you can’t help thinking that Sgt. Joe Friday would have decked the condescending so-and-so.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
“Salvation of a Saint” By Keigo Higashino Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander Minotaur. 330 pp. $24.99