I always knew that a fundamental of Japanese society is sensitivity to other people, formal relationships and concern with saying the proper thing. So when I started listening to the audio book of Salvation of a Saint , I wondered how a Japanese detective story would differ from an American or European detective story.
Here it is: the police detectives are polite, apologizing for bothering the suspects and witnesses. The witnesses are polite, apologizing if they don’t give the answer the policeman is expecting. “Oh, is it a problem that I made the coffee with mineral water instead of tap water?” “Oh, is it a problem that I forgot to tell you that before?”
And of course the detectives accompany their apologies with slight bows.
The structure of the novel threw me a bit, also. This is, basically, a police procedural, where the police doggedly follow tiny pieces of evidence and rely on crime labs. However, instead of an array of suspects, we basically have one, the wife of the victim who is a piecework artist. We are given a pretty strong indication that she’s the killer right off the bat, but the suspense of the novel lies in the swing between the police finding evidence that implicates her, and then finding circumstances that weaken the evidence. A man is poisoned. His wife is suspected, but she was a thousand miles away at the time of the murder. So HOW did she do it?
As one of the characters says, “Only a woman could cover up with a solution so contradictory, so illogical, so perfect…” And he concludes that it is a miracle they could solve the murder so logically–implying of course that one cannot expect logic from women. Which does not seem consistent with the image of a woman who devotes her life to piecework–matching small pieces into a larger design, just as the detectives do.
Even an hour-long police drama on TV introduces more possible solutions than this entire novel. Thus, to a person used to the crowded and busy plot of an American thriller or police procedural, the novel seems as repetitive and sometimes as dull as actual police work instead of the action on steroids that we’re used to.
All the characters, including the culprit, are likable with the exception of the dead guy, so that worked out well. I particularly liked the portrayal of the two police detectives: Detective Kusanagi and his assistant Kaoru Utsumi– Kusanagi the main cop, and Utsumi his new female side-kick, who displays her intelligence and independence in bucking Kusanagi’s ideas.
The most interesting character turns out to be, of all things, a physics professor–not exactly a man of action. (In fact nary a weapon is flourished and nary a bruise is administered in this entire novel.) The physics professor, known by the nickname Detective Galileo insists on sticking to facts, even though he ultimately comes up with a solution that he deems “impossible.”
The characters are well-to-do, sophisticated people who could be drinking from their Baccarat crystal and listening to the same popular music as in the United States or Britain. So if you are looking for some exotic life form, these are not kimono-wearing women tittering behind coy fans. Instead, you get a taste of real life in present day Japan.
You may be wondering how you would keep all those Japanese names straight, and at the beginning I was concerned about the same thing, particularly since I was listening to an audio book, but it was not a problem. First, MacMillan has an excellent reader in David Pittu, and he pulls of the difficult task of separating out the 3 main female characters and a few others, as well as distinctive voices for the men. Second, Higashino really structures his novel well. You get reminders of characters’ traits frequently, so that you always have a clear picture of who is doing what.
The physics professor also appeared in a previous novel, The Devotion of Suspect X which was a finalist for the Edgar Awards and garnered world-wide praise. Higashino is wildly popular in Japan (three dozen best sellers) although lesser known in English-speaking nations, since that was his first book to appear in English.
My reading (listening) led me to believe that his books are written for a specific culture, and do not translate well for another culture, no matter how skilled the translation of the words. On the other hand, if you are a traveler, wanting to know what Japan is like today, reading the Higashino novels would be a good introduction. You will not read much about place, which Higashino does not seem to think is important. Although his characters move to different cities during the story, we are never treated to physical descriptions of those places.
You can test-drive this novel by downloading one or all of the first four chapters (probably more by the time you read this) at a site called Criminal Element. This is not a case of stolen material, because the author’s Facebook page (he doesn’t have a web page–in English at least) promotes the downloads. Want more? See videos (with English subtitles) of mysteries by the author.
If you ARE planning a visit to Japan, check out Lillie Teacha Marshall’s Around The World L for her section on Japan.
Note: The audio book was provided to me by the publisher for review, but my opinions are entirely my own. The photographs come from Flickr.com and are used with a Creative Commons license.Please click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.
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