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.
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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