Salvation of a Saint – How would you prove a Perfect Crime?
Reading an American or European mystery novel wholly differs from reading a Japanese detective story. You get to read the fundamental functioning of a Japanese society, where there is always a little concern about other people’s sensitivity or about saying the proper thing. In Keigo Higashino’s novels, the police always seem polite. They often apologize for bothering the alleged suspects and the witnesses in turn feel sorry for not able to know the right answers. And, of course every apologies and conversations ends up with a little bow. Reading the behavior of Higashino’s characters is different from the usual popular imagination of Japan – a tech-obsessed, cyber Utopian Island.
Higshino’s “Devotion of Suspect X” was the first novel to be translated (by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander) to English. It introduced Tokyo police detective Kusanagi and his genius consultant, Manabu Yukawa — known as “Detective Galileo.” In that novel, we know the identity of the murderer very earlier. His recently translated “Salvation of a Saint” also doesn’t have a array of suspects. We basically have one suspect and given a strong indication that she’s the killer right in the first chapter. But, once again, suspense lies in solving and finding evidence for this perfect crime.
The handsome and wealthy Yoshitaka Mashiba has set his life plan clearly. He married Ayane – a successful quilting teacher –, a year earlier and has put out a agreement that he would divorce her if she doesn’t get pregnant. When their wedding anniversary arrives, he callously asks for divorce and is ready to throw out Ayane like an old newspaper. Yoshitaka has also taken a lover, Hiromi Wakayama – Ayane’s quilting student – and has decided to marry her. At the end of the first chapter, Ayane declares: “your words were like a knife stabbing me in the heart. That’s why you have to die too.” Yeah, Yoshitaka dies in the next chapter, gets poisoned by ingesting arsenous acid, in his cup of coffee. And, yes, Ayane is the suspect according to a reader. However, she is five hundred miles away in the city of Sapporo, visiting her parents.
Ayane leaves with Hiromi a key to her house. It was Hiromi who discovers his body. Detective Kusanagi, the lead investigator, finds several layers of mystery. Lots of questions pop up: Was Yoshitaka murdered, or did he die accidentally? If his death is an accident, how so? If not, who killed him? Why and How? The wife has the potential motive because her husband has betrayed and carried an affair with wife’s student. But, how did she execute this murder? However, Kusanagi falls for Ayane and sees a sorrowful and restrained widow with a bewitching voice. Utsumi, the detective’s assistant is worried about Kusanagi’s ability to run an objective investigation. So, she calls for the help of Detective Galileo, who after scrutinizing several evidence comes up with a ‘theoretically possible’ and practically impossible’ solution.
You can see the shades of Sherlock Holmes and Watson in the conversation and relationship between Yukawa and Kusanagi. The use of a precise timetable of the crime, the poisoned drink and the cat-and-mouse game brings Agatha Christie to our mind. There is also a psychological undercurrent or theme running throughout the novel, which ponders over the motives of a killer. Except for the dead guy, Yoshitaka, we will like every other character (including the killer). The characters are also eteched out with a present day reality of Japanese society. They are sophisticated people and listen to popular music, like the American or European compatriots. So, don’t expect exotic lives and kimono-wearing woman walking under tatami mats.
Keigo Higashino has worked as an engineer before becoming a full-time writer and currently only 5 of his novels are translated to English. He is called as ‘Japanese Steig Larsson’, although he doesn’t heavily rely on violence, sex or striking vocabularies. What’s great about ‘Suspect X’ and ‘Salvation’ is that it circumvents most of the mystery novel clichés. There are no femme fatales, no heavy-handed police officers and no patronizing genius’ regularly muttering punch lines. Higshino’s personas have very realistic human strengths and weaknesses and most importantly he avoids a traditional western ending (especially a gun blazing one).
“Salvation of a Saint” has a smart plot at its core and is supported by intelligent characters. If you are a fan of psychologically charged films of ‘Hitchcock’ or French auteur ‘Henri-Georges Clouzot’, you might feel pepped up to finish this book within a single night. If you have never read a mystery novel, then you will definitely get pulled into this cunning puzzle.