“Malice” – Planting the Perfect Motive

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Japanese author Keigo Higashino (ludicrously dubbed as ‘Japanese Stieg Larsson’) is best known for his crime & murder mystery novels that have carefully wound back-stories and characters with enough psychological depth. Higashino hasn’t entirely reconstructed the murder mystery plot, but he distinctly displays how flexible are the parameters of such mystery stories. The crime in Higashino’s novels, on the outset, looks deceptively simple; the perpetrator often announced in the 1st chapter or at least half-way through. But, as the detective protagonist try to assemble the evidence & motive for the killing, things gradually become labyrinthine.

If “Devotion of Suspect X” (Higashino’s English-language debut) was about uncovering the mechanics of a murder and “Salvation of a Saint” about piecing through infringing evidences, Higashino’s “Malice” is all about finding the right motive for the crime. “Malice” was first published in Japan, in 1996, but only translated (Alexander O Smith) into English last year (2014) after the grand success of “Suspect X” in 2011. The novel starts with Osamu Nonogochi’s account of April 16, 1996. The reason of why he is writing the account for that particular day is explained towards the end of chapter, but for Nonoguchi the day seems to have started like any other day in his uneventful life. He writes children stories in a magazine and has previously worked as a teacher.

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On April 16th, Nonoguchi travels to see his friend Kunihiko Hidaka, a successful writer who was written many bestsellers. When Nonoguchi arrives at his friend’s home, the author doesn’t seem to be at home. He recalls his relationship with Hidaka, about Hidaka’s wife, who died in an accident five years before. He gets into the garden to see the beautiful cherry tree, but finds a strange lady, who thinks Hidaka has poisoned her cat. Hidaka is going to start a new life in Vancouver, Canda with his new wife Rie. As he arrives soon, Nonoguchi tells that he just wanted to visit them before their shifting. The friends casually converse with each other and Nonoguchi takes leave as Hidaka has to write few chapters for his serialized novel and because the author has a female visitor: Miyako Fujio, a woman angry about her dead brother’s thinly veiled portrait in one of Hidaka’s novels.

Nonoguchi states how he received a distress call from his friend Hidaka at 6 PM and makes an appointment to meet Hidaka at his house at 8 PM. But, Nonoguchi and Rie Hidaka only find the murdered corpse of Hidaka, inside his locked office room. As the police investigation starts, Nonoguchi is surprised to find detective Kaga, a former colleague, although they haven’t seen each other for some time. The best-selling author’s murder soon becomes fodder for media frenzy. Nonoguchi’s accounts are paralleled with detective Kaga’s investigative notes. Kaga soon finds out who the killer is and how he did it, but faces great difficulties in uncovering the motive as the murderer has no intent of disclosing it (As Kaga’s says towards the end to the murderer: “You didn’t care about committing the perfect crime. You wanted to establish the perfect motive”).

“Malice” contains the kind of narrator whose interpretation of the events isn’t entirely reliable. We recently came across this kind of narrative in novels like “Gone Girl”, “The Girl on the Train”. In “Malice”, the unreliable narrator isn’t just concocted to bring the 180 degree turn in the story, but also explores how perceive a characters’ nature through what we hear or see about them. Higashino once again lends a psychological perspective to the character’s hidden motives and actions. I didn’t find the central mystery in “Malice” as compelling as the author’s two other previous works, but it is engrossing enough to be a taut page-turner.

The author doesn’t delve deep into the Japanese setting, define their culture and environment. However, Higashino as he lays bare the psychological impulses of the characters, subtly comments on Japanese society their people’s feelings are hidden behind several layers of societal and emotional control. Envy, bullying and childhood trauma are the primary themes of “Malice”, which is weaved within the rich layers of intrigue. To understand the subtle way in which Higashino has imbued the details & twists (which mostly go unnoticed at first time), we have to reread some of the chapters (especially Nonoguchi’s account).

Keigo Higashino’s “Malice” is a fascinating murder mystery novel, containing a twisting narrative as well as contemplative themes. It boasts two vital things such page-turners never feature: profound characterization and psychological realism.

 

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