Written by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O Smith — This year has been a good one for lovers of Japanese literature in translation. Across all genres, Japanese literature in English has flown off the shelves. In crime fiction in particular, the second half of 2014 has seen three great novels – Confessions by Kanae Minato and Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura, both of which will be reviewed here in the coming weeks, and my pick of the bunch, Malice by Keigo Higashino.
Higashino is a publishing phenomenon in Japan – writing mainly mysteries, penning several series, each one focusing on a different detective. You may have read The Devotion of Suspect X and The Salvation of the Saint, part of the Detective Galileo series.
Malice is perhaps the least Western-feeling of all his novels. It’s a rather cozy mystery – the murder occurs by paperweight and telephone cord – and the worst shortcoming of the investigator, the tenacious teacher-turned-police detective Kyoichiro Kaga, is that he occasionally doubts himself. After the death of successful author Kunihio Hidaka, Kaga finds himself questioning an old colleague from his teaching days, Osamu Noguchi. Noguchi was a close friend of the victim, the last to see him alive, and the one who discovered his body.
Kaga’s detective work is rather unconventional, delving into the shared past of the murderer and the victim, their works and their relationships. While he is investigating he gets to the heart of Japanese society – from their love of a tabloid scandal to the ever present issue of bullying. Most fascinating, though, is how it exposes the inner workings of a man who can coldly and calmly plot another man’s demise, and go about creating the world in which that can happen.
The novel is not a whodunnit, but one that looks at how the case is solved. The identity of the murderer is known from the second chapter, he even signs a confession before the novel is half over. However, through the various re-tellings of the events, and through careful investigation, Detective Kaga gets to how the deed was done and why. The plot recalls Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, and forces us to question what is real, and who can be trusted. Parts are retellings from the perspective of the murderer, an author who makes his living creating false worlds, and it’s up to Detective Kaga to unravel these.
The cover of the novel proclaims that Higashino is ‘the Japanese Steig Larson’ and, while these kinds of comparisons are handed out to any book in translation, and do nothing to encourage me to buy a novel, I have to admit that I see a certain amount of truth in this comparison. Obviously, the perpetual darkness that has become the scene of so many Nordic novels is different to the concrete desolation of urban Japan, but the way that it cuts to the core of society via an intensely readable story is similar.
Malice was originally published in 1996 and is beginning to show its age. At one point a fax machine is used to establish an alibi, and the fact that Hidaka writes on a new computer temporarily proves an issue for the investigators, but Smith’s translation handles these issues quite well. It is fantastically readable in English, but still retains the undeniable sense that it could only have been translated from Japanese.
Malice comes out on 7 October in hardback and 9 October for Kindle.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars