Murder by Numbers – ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

This review first appeared on on 21st Aug 2011

Fed up with gritty realism? Had enough of alcoholic detectives with enigmatic names? Bored by ever more elaborate and gruesome serial murders? Then look no further, this is the book you have been waiting for. I like crime fiction, but let’s be honest, it’s pretty formulaic. This of course is partly why I like it. I like to be able to sit down with a Wallander or a Bosch novel and know pretty much what I’m going to get. For ‘TDOSX’ I had no expectations, and that in itself was a breath of fresh air.

The novel opens in a quiet Tokyo suburb, where Yasuko works in take-away lunch shop. We soon learn she has a violent ex-husband, who has managed to track her down. They argue, and he ends up dead. What is Yasuko going to do? Just as she is contemplating spending the rest of her life behind bars, a knock comes at the door. It is her quiet neighbour Ishigami, a high school teacher, and also a maths genius, who conveniently has a crush on Yasuko. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says ‘I will take care of everything.’

The reader knows about the murder and who did it almost from the outset. What we don’t know is how Ishigami intends to protect Yasuko. Kusanagi, the detective investigating the murder is an old hand, tenacious and thorough in his investigative technique. He, conveniently, has a friend, Yukawa who is a physics lecturer and also a genius. In a third piece of convenient plotting Yukawa and Ishigami were acquaintances at university. There then follows an intriguing and utterly compelling game of cat and mouse, as two towering intellects attempt to outwit one another.

The premise of this novel is strong, and although some of the connections between its characters are a little contrived, as a thriller it works on every level. It starts by twisting the genre through 180 degrees. You desperately don’t want the killer to be found; hope for the police not to catch their man. The false trail laid be Ishigami is almost flawless, yet Yukawa and Kusanagi find teasing inconsistencies, that they tug at until they reveal more of the real picture. Then when a suitor approaches Yukawa, how will her saviour react? This development adds a further psychological depth to the novel. It’s wonderful.

I found myself unable to put this novel down. There are no explosions, no chain of dead bodies, no mysterious cyphers, just a brilliantly constructed plot, a masterclass in logical thinking, all told by a consummate storyteller. I haven’t read as good a crime novel in many a year.


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