“It’s more difficult to create the problem than to solve it. All the person trying to solve the problem has to do is always respect the problem’s creator.”
Is it a coincidence that the only other Japanese crime novel I read also involved bento box production and a woman strangling her husband? The Devotion of Suspect X opens with single mother Yasuko Hanaoka strangling her ex-husband after a period of stalking, sponging off and threatening her teenage daughter Misato who finally cracks and hits her stepfather over the head with a vase. Faced with the problem of a dead body they are overheard by their next door neighbour, a maths teacher named Ishigami, who proceeds to come conveniently to their rescue.
There is no give away of the plot by saying this. The murder happens in the books opening. The majority of the plot is dedicated to the cat and mouse game Ishigami plays with the police, the genius consultant they bring in and the strength of Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko when an old flame re-enters her life.
Despite committing the murder Yasuka and Misato are not really the protagonists of this story. They only seem to react to the situations around them. It is the male characters doing the scheming, the investigating and the brainwork. I was a bit disappointed because the opening led me to believe it would be the two women at the centre of the plot
This book sold over 2 million copies in Japan and is considered Higashino’s best work. While I enjoyed the read I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat as the detectives circled around the evidence for nearly the entire book. It wasn’t like the speeding car falling down hill in Out where the situation spirals out of control and in fact I found the novel dragged quite a bit. It is unfortunate for this book that I read Natsuo Karino’s work first and the premise was so similar. However Karino created a work of devastation you can’t look away from and imprints the horror on your mind. The difference between the two crime novels is like the snow outside to the snow inside a snow globe.
This is the first Japanese crime novel I’ve read and if they’re all as good as this I may become addicted. There’s a great deal of atmosphere, tension and clever characterisation which are all things I love in a book. The plot centres around four women who work in the graveyard shift in a bento box factory in the suburbs of Tokyo. One of the women finally cracks and brutally strangles her philandering husband with her belt and then enlists the three other women to help hide the body. The situation gets more desperate when the police discover the body and the owner of a gambling club is accused of the murder leading him to search for the real culprits.
The story opens with the bleak drudgery of the factory work and captures perfectly the grimness of being in a dead end job that pretty much all of us can relate to. I definitely felt instant empathy with the character Masako from the start as she smoked in the factory car park. Kirino flawlessly captures the feeling when a day is so dismal that a cigarette is the only highlight you can look forward to.
We begin with the point of view of Masako and move through the other characters throughout the book. There was Masako herself, Yayoi the weak willed beautiful woman married to a gambler, Yoshie whose life revolves around her bedridden mother in law and sullen daughter and Kuniko a sly girl obsessed with designer brands and heavily in debt. We also spread to beyond the factory to the families of the four women, a beautiful Chinese hostess in a gambling club and a slick money lender. All the characters had a touchable human element, even Kuniko who I started out despising but ended pitying for the shallowness of her life.
The atmosphere of this novel is perfect and I saw every scene in my mind in shades of monochrome like film noir. Despite the gore and grimness of the plot this book is very enjoyable and even strangely humorous in a black deadpan way. The language is stark and plain with each word crafted carefully into place with random splashes of poetic imagery like when a money lender describing Kuniko as a girl you could see through like a jellyfish. Despite being a clever and thickly plotted novel the story is highly readable and very addictive. I read through it in two days desperate to see what happened next as the four women dug themselves into a darker and darker hole.
“You know,” she murmured, “we’re all heading straight to hell.”
“Yes,” said Masako, giving her a bleak look. “It’s like riding downhill with no brakes.”
“You mean, there’s no way to stop?”
“No, you stop all right – when you crash.”
I found Masako to be the biggest mystery in this book in what motivates her and what she feels but strangely she is the character I feel most comfortable reading about. I won’t say like because I’m still not quite sure if I actually like any of these characters but I certainly loved reading about them. Kirino balances character driven plot with layers of social and political commentary of ordinary life in Japan for women and the dangers of moneylenders and heavy debt. Money and the need of it drives half the evil in this book and pushes the characters beyond their moral compasses.