Devotion of Suspect X – A Puzzling Detective Novel

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Mysteries and thrillers always tend to have an arbitrary boundary. The thrillers raises the stakes for the protagonist and tires to create tension at every conceivable point. The mysteries manufacture suspense and tension through intellectual and deduction capabilities of the protagonist (who is mostly a detective). Some of the books published today under “crime fiction” try to balance the story by sliding between the two camps (thriller/mystery). Keigo Hagashino – heralded as a brilliant Japanese crime-fiction novelist – falls under this category and his novels are both mind and genre bending. He has been writing since late 80’s but his first novel (and his best) to accord to major distribution is “Devotion of Suspect X.” It’s a novel which transcends genre and cultures and tells a story of obsessive love.

Yasuko Hanaoka lives in a small apartment in Tokyo with her teenage daughter Misato. She works as a lunch shop assistant. Her next door neighbor is Ishigami – a mathematical genius working as teacher in a mediocre school.  He is a shy introverted guy and is awkward with women. Ishigami is infatuated with her and buys lunch from the shop just to see her. Yasuko’s brutish ex-husband, Togashi (Misato’s step-father) pursues her to extract some money. She has taken this job and moved to the neighborhood just to avoid him. But, one day, Togashi finds out her working place, and later, the apartment.

In this fateful chapter, Misato’s is cowering inside a room and Togashi is taunting Yasuko. The menacing Togashi’s plans for future gets out of hand when the altercation that ensues leaves him dead with an electric cord around his neck.  The next-door neighbor has heard all the loud screams and violent thuds. Ishigami, the obsessive lover and genius turns offers help to clear the corpse. He also concocts a perfect alibi for the mother and daughter – the one which can’t be shaken or disproved. He says, “Logical thinking will get us through this.”

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Ishigami and Yukawa in the movie adaptation, “Suspect X” (2008)

All these things happen within the first 50 pages. Soon, a body is found and the police can’t immediately identify it. Detective Kusanagi is on the case and the lack of evidence makes him talk with a genius physician and friend, Manabu Yukawa (Doctor Galileo). Ishigami’s perfect alibi is confronted Yukawa, who also happens to be a former acquaintance of Ishigami (in the college days). As the investigation unfolds, Yukawa liaises with both the detective and mathematician. The cat and mouse game leads to a startling revelation, which turns everything upside down.

Higashino’s writing is pedestrian (like Agatha Christie’s). He sparsely wastes a word and packs a huge wallop in the final pages. The killing takes place very early in the book. We know who did it, but what’s amazing is the way Higashino has kept the reader in his toes, till the end. Ishigami’s favorite mathematical proof, “the P=NP problem” is a rich ingredient in this lair of mystery. The problem asks, “Whether it’s harder to think of the solution to a problem yourself or to check if someone else’s answer to the same problem is correct.” The final revelation is emotionally resonant. Ishigami, adheres himself to mathematical principles and seeks truth through theorems. So, he tries to find a solution for this real-world, but, alas murder does not fit neatly in boxes offered by complex formulas. It is driven by various variants like passion, jealousy.

Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino

On the flip side, certain twists are far-fetched. The intellectual sparring between Yukawa and Ishigami remains intriguing, but Ishigami’s love and the reason behind it are fairly rudimentary. What follows after the final twists is a melodramatic overkill.

“The Devotion of Suspect X” is a tightly plotted procedural thriller as well as an intricately constructed murder/mystery. It has a universal appeal and is highly original, since it goes beyond the basic ‘whodunit’ kind.

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