By Patrick Anderson
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 6:19 PM
Early crime fiction often invited the reader to match wits with the writer. Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective genre with his 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which his hero deduces how two women were brutally slain in a fourth-floor room in which the windows and doors were locked from the inside. One of the first Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Sign of the Four," also features a locked-room mystery. Agatha Christie wrote dozens of ingenious puzzles, as did her many imitators. The genre ran into problems as plots evolved from ingenious to preposterous. By 1930, the "puzzle mystery" had begun to lose favor in America, thanks to the popularity of the pulp crime magazines and the novels of Dashiell Hammett, which in turn gave rise to the modern thriller, with its focus less on intellectual games than on violence and social realism.
The puzzle genre never disappeared, however, and Keigo Higashino's "The Devotion of Suspect X" - a bestseller in Japan and the basis of a popular movie there - is a modern example of the games a clever writer can play with his readers. At the outset, we meet Ishigami, a stout, reclusive high-school math teacher who, we are told, is a genius. He lives in an apartment building outside Tokyo and has a crush on Yasuko, an attractive woman who lives next door with her teenage daughter. Ishigami, too shy to speak to Yasuko otherwise, each day goes to the carry-out shop where she works to order his lunch from her.
One night, Yasuko's no-good ex-husband turns up at her apartment, forces his way in, taunts his ex-wife and makes suggestive comments to his ex-stepdaughter. The girl, furious, hits the man over the head with a vase. He hits her back and shouts that he'll kill her. A violent, three-way struggle ends with the man dead. At that point, the mother fears she's destined to go to prison for murder. This reader thought that, with a good lawyer, she'd claim self-defense and go free - but that way there's no novel.
Instead, Ishigami, the brainy math teacher, appears from next door - he's heard the melee - and takes charge. He assures Yasuko that if she and her daughter will do as he says, he will dispose of the body, construct an airtight alibi for them and, in effect, direct the perfect crime. The women agree and promise to tell the police a story about spending the evening at a movie and a karaoke bar. "Trust me," the mathematical genius assures the terrified women. "Logical thinking will get us through this."
We meet Kusanagi, the detective in charge of the case, while he is playing chess with his friend Yukawa, a professor of physics at Imperial University and also a genius. This is, of course, significant, because we are soon to see a kind of chess game between Ishigami, the math teacher, and Yukawa, the physics professor, who were in fact once students together. In other words, we have here an intellectual battle between one genius who thinks he can carry off the perfect crime and another who thinks he can use logic to solve any crime.
At one point, the scientist warns the detective: "A common criminal wouldn't think to put ticket stubs procured for an alibi in such a credible place. If we assume that the tickets really were bought to establish an alibi, that she put them in the pamphlet expecting you to come and ask her for them, I'd say that makes her an adversary to be feared." He might as well have added, "Elementary, my dear Watson."
In the end, we learn which genius prevails. That cannot be revealed here, but I can say that I found the ending unsatisfactory. Back in 1928, when the puzzle novel was falling out of favor, S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries, wrote an article called "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." He argued that since the detective story is "a kind of intellectual game," self-respecting writers must follow certain unwritten rules. One was that the reader should have the same opportunity as the detective to solve the crime. Higashino has ignored that basic rule with an ending that introduces facts the reader had no way of knowing. The ending might strike some readers as ingenious, but I found it simply unfair, a cheat. This puzzle mostly just made my head ache.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.
THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X
by Keigo Higashino
Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Minotaur. 298 pp. $24.99