Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

I’m counting this as my first book on the Asian leg of the 2011 Global Reading Challenge.

Yasuko Hanaoka is a single mother whose ex-husband, Togashi, still bothers her for money and engages in other nasty harassment. One evening he comes to her apartment, gets threatening and ends up strangled at the hands of his ex and her teenage daughter, Misato. Ishigami is a maths teacher/genius and Yasuko’s neighbour. He visits the lunch-box shop at which she works every day just so he can buy lunch from his pretty neighbour. When he hears noises in her apartment he deduces what has gone on there and offers to help dispose of the body and cover up the crime. The rest of the book is then billed as a battle of wits between Ishigami and the police who are aided by their very own genius, physicist Dr. Manabu Yukawa nicknamed Professor Galileo, who happens to be an old college mate of both the lead detective on the case, Kusanagi, and our genius maths teacher Ishigami (though the latter two have never met prior to this case).

This book has won Japan’s Naoki Prize for Best Novel and is highly rated at both Amazon and Good Reads. I can’t for the life of me see why any of those things is true but there’s nothing new there, I am often out of step on such matters. As always, I’ll tell you why I didn’t think much of the book and you can make up your own minds.

For a start the plot does not really take us anywhere new or interesting. My one sentence summary of the premise for the book is “ugly man does stupid thing because he is in lust with unattainable beautiful woman” (and yes that is slightly more bitter and twisted than what the book presents but only a smidgen). The only suspenseful element of the entire thing was the question of whether or not the police would uncover the truth, except it wasn’t really that suspenseful because the ‘investigation’ wasn’t remotely credible to me. Readers are lulled into accepting the immediate and singular focus on Yasuko Hanaoka as a suspect because we know she is guilty, but the police had no idea that was true and their decision to only ever investigate the woman Togashi divorced five years ago would have been laughable if it had been depicted in a more traditional procedural. In a nod to this notion one of the detectives makes a comment along the lines of ‘he had no friends’ which, I suppose, is supposed to reassure the reader that all other avenues of inquiry were exhausted. Even the investigation into Yasuko was highly improbable, consisting of repeated re-interviewing and endless following people connected to Yasuko for no reason at all and acting upon a lot of baseless assumptions.

The cover-up devised by Ishigami could have been intriguing but it dragged on too long. For me it started to get vaguely tense in chapter 16. Of 19 chapters. Irrespective of the pace I never quite bought into the supposedly brilliant machinations being put into play by Ishigami because I never really felt the author was playing fair with me as a reader so I was actively looking for things he might have hidden. In the end I’d argue that Higashino broke one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing by ensuring that the resolution relied on a piece of information that we, as readers, were never given.

The characters in the book were even less interesting than the plot, though probably more credible. I simply found them stereotypical, flat and unlikable. The portrayal of Ishigami’s life as barren due to him being an ugly, misunderstood genius whose daily battle with bored teenagers and dreams of missed opportunities which could all have been made palatable by the affections of a beautiful woman was tiresomely derivative. Yasuko’s insipid acceptance of life as something that happens to you was cringe-inducing and dull. Other people decided everything for her, from when to give up working as a club hostess to whether or not to conceal the murder she has just committed. She didn’t even really make a conscious decision to kill Togashi and even her final act was prompted by someone else’s actions rather than her own beliefs or strength of character. So this all leads me back to the plot. One of the reasons I didn’t find the ‘will they get away with it’ scenario terribly suspenseful was that I simply didn’t care.

Both the translation (by Alexander O Smith) and narration (by David Pittu) were more positive aspects of the book for me. The dialogue in the book does sometimes have an awkward feel which other reviewers have attributed to poor translation, but I thought that when conversations were stilted or tentative it was natural for those people in that setting and reflected the slightly formal feel of Japanese culture. The narration was superb and really the only thing that stopped me from consigning this book to the DNF pile.

Ultimately I found this book more of a gothic melodrama than anything else and I guess I’m just not romantic enough to have been sucked into its orbit. I’ll acknowledge that it did create an atmosphere of sorts but for me there was no real substance to it and I grew quickly tired of the contrivances of the plot. My personal recommendation for a thoughtful and intriguing work of Japanese crime fiction would be Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Devotion of Suspect X has been reviewed far more favourably at lots of other places including The Black Sheep Dances and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2/5
Translator Alexander O Smith
Narrator David Pittu
Publisher Macmillan Audio [this edition 2011, original edition 2005]
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 9 hours 2 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series possibly the first in a series but so far the only one translated into English
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in 2011 Global Reading Challenge, book review, Japan, Keigo Higashino. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

  1. kathy durkin says:

    Good honest review, which I appreciate. Not sure if I’ll read it, but will read the other reviews posted.
    Miyuki Miyabi is a good crime writer who writes interesting stories with original twists, and her books very much reflect Japanese life.

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  2. Thanks Kathy, I’ve got Miyuki Miyabi on my ‘must try’ list … not that easy to get here in Oz so I’ll need to make a virtual trip to Book Depository.

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  3. Norman says:

    Bernadette after your review of this book, and your recommendation of Villain I am pleased I have it waiting on my TBR shelf.

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  4. Bernadette – Thanks for this honest and thoughtful review. I don’t know enough about Japanese crime fiction, and I had actually considered this one, but after your review, I think I’ll go for Villain instead. One thing about your review that really resonated with me is that whole notion of playing fair with the reader. If there is no way the reader could have figured out whodunit, the author is not playing fair. Period. And I agree; if there’s nothing new or fresh about the way an author deals with a premise or characters, then it’s no wonder if a book doesn’t hold people’s interest.

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  5. Belle Wong says:

    Nice review. This isn’t the kind of storyline I usually go for – I think I’m more traditional in that I’m in it for the mystery aspect and not just suspense.

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  6. Kerrie says:

    ooh.. I’m listening to this to and from work ….. I’m amazed you finished it!

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  7. I seem to be more forgiving of audio books Kerrie – as I am usually doing something else at the same time (trudging along to work mostly). Will be curious to see what you make of it.

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  8. kathy durkin says:

    Book Depository does have “All She Was Worth,” and “Shadow Family,” by Miyabi.
    They are reasonably priced.

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  9. I’m glad I went with the Inspector O/North Korean crime fiction instead. 😀

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  10. Maxine says:

    Good heavens, sounds dreadful! Thanks for the review, Bernadette. This book isn’t out over here yet (UK) but it has been so hyped and recommended, you have spared me an ordeal by the “sounds” (ha ha) of it. The plot sounds just the kind of thing I hate. I have actually read those two Miyabi novels Kathy mentions (reviews at Petrona) – I thought All She Was Worth was a lot better than Shadow Family.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Just started reading DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X. I agree wholeheartedly with your review. 40 pages in and I’m already thinking of ways I could use this as an example of what not to do in the writing classes I teach. This guy must have made a deal with the devil in exchange for his success, because he has received far more acclaim than what he’s worth.

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  15. Maxine says:

    I have just read this book and found it so boring I don’t know how I managed to finish it. I have drafter a review and am in the process of linking to other reviews, so this one of yours cropped up. I had totally forgotten it, but now that I’ve read the book I am glad to note that at least we agree! What a bore.

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    • I wouldn’t wish a crappy reading experience on anyone Maxine but it does do me good to know I am not the only one – I still see new rave reviews of this book dotted around the blogosphere and each time I wonder again if I read a different book to the one being described. For me it was definitely a snore fest.

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