The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

8686068“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.

 

 

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Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

565f08411b0000d80029ef52As soon as I had finished this book I wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

The story starts with a murder of a rather sleazy family man, Anwar Sadat, but we already know who has committed it- what is important is why. The murderer is a sweet young man called Margio who within him conceals a supernatural female white tiger. What I loved most about this book was not only the sensual imagery of papaya, prayer and cigarette smoke but also the drama and the suspense. Kurniawan holds the reader in his grip until the very end with characters that crackle with romance and violence.

Despite the myth of the white tiger this isn’t exactly magical realism but a layered and moving story deeply embedded in its culture. We don’t go forward in time from the murder, we go back. Back to Margio’s family, his victim’s family and the way they are closely knitted together.  Kurniawan’s writing  can be striking and cinematic with the immediateness of the crime genre but he can also give us clouds of atmosphere that portray the steamy tense landscape of Indonesia with the memory of Japanese occupation and structure of Islamic tradition. Overall I loved his ability to take my breath away with a single scene.

His feet brought him to the cell. He stood by the door, watching Margio shiver on the mattress, hoping that the secret would be revealed with a simple question. But bitterness and pity weighed on him, preventing him from speaking and as he struggled Margio turned to him and understood his unspoken question.

“It wasn’t me, “he said calmly and without guilt. “There is a tiger inside my body.”

I read through this quickly- it’s as gripping and page turning as a murder mystery and yet there are layers underneath that would make for satisfying second reading. The way Kurniawan portrays the million tiny grievances that build up into a storm reflects the violent history of his country and the way a storm can break over anything in its path in misdirected rage. By the end of the tale we understand why Margio did what he did and we can appreciate the tragedy and randomness of it.

The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie

the_seven_dials_mystery_first_edition_cover_1929 (1)I don’t think I’ll ever find a crime author I love as much as Agatha Christie. I had so much fun reading this book. Not only was the mystery cleverly plotted out in Christie’s usual flair but there was a great deal of humour and unexpected twists.

The book begins at a country house party where one of the guests, Gerry Wade, known for oversleeping and missing breakfast, unexpectedly dies in his room. The other guests had arranged a practical joke to wake him up by placing eight alarm clocks in his room.  When he is found dead seven clocks are found on the mantelpiece and the strange clue ends up leading back to a secret society in London. His friend Ronny Devereux has only just started to investigate when he is shot and found dying by the heroine Bundle- real name Lady Eileen Brent. She joins forces with Gerry’s friend Jimmy Thesiger, and two others mixed up in the house party but all of them have their own agendas and no one is telling the absolute truth.

The book was extremely funny as all Agatha books are but there was also the unintentionally hilarious. Bundle spends a lot of time while stuck in a wardrobe spying on a dangerous international secret society obsessing over the one woman in the group and how beautiful her back is. I was beginning to hope the book would spiral in an unexpected direction especially as the female gaze comes out again later at another woman but alas it was not to be.

What I loved most about Bundle is that despite being in the dark without the police’s resources she is very determined to sleuth in dangerous situations more than her male companions and doesn’t really pay attention to anything they tell her to do.

Bundle Brent was a resourceful girl- she was also a girl of imagination. She had foreseen that Bill, if not Jimmy, would make objections to her participation in the possible dangers of the night. It was not Bundle’s idea to waste time in argument. She had made her own plans and made her own arrangements.

While the boys set to watch the house she climbs outside in the middle of the night to make her own investigation, noting that they don’t think far enough outside the box.

I didn’t guess who the murderer was at all and ended up suspecting practically everyone at some point as the author intended. The espionage element of the plot was never taken very seriously, actually a lot of the story wasn’t taken very seriously and that’s what made the book so good. Christie makes a lot of satirical asides at the upper class and noveau rich and Bundle’s interactions with her father were brilliant.

My only criticism of the plot was that the reveal of the murderer and reasons behind it were rushed in at the end. I had to read it over twice and it ended a little too abruptly for me. Still I highly recommend this book and will definitely be reading The Secret of Chimneys. I didn’t realise until half way through that this was a loose sequel of a previous book but it doesn’t really matter and can be enjoyed as a stand alone novel.

This is one of the crime books I got for Christmas. I love the vintage covers that Harper Collins have brought back and they’ve even included the original blurbs which sound very strange by today’s standards/

 

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tarttThe Secret History, Donna Tartt 1992, Penguin 1993

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

This book was very excellent at escapism. I read through it in two days and hardly put it down. It was never boring and like all great storytellers Tartt made me forget sometimes I was reading a book and made me see the story playing out in my head.

It is like watching a modern Greek tragedy from very close up looking at this story through the protagonist, Richard. But if we had seen it through the other characters it would have been like being in the tragedy itself.

Except for the sullen unrequited desire for Camilla, Richard does not seem to feel any depth of emotion at all.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty- unless she is wed to something more meaningful- is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.

This for me mirrors the concept of this whole book. It is the argument that the French teacher Laforgue makes as to Richard as to why the Greek professor heading this elitist group is not perfect. I think the main problem I had while reading this book (not that I didn’t enjoy it very much!) was that the snobbish clique did not appeal to me and I found it shallow and ridiculous.

The other characters Charles Francis, Camilla and even Henry, we find, are driven almost mad by their passion and love and jealousy but in a way Richard is like Bunny and just jealously watches from the outside unable to feel the frenzy for himself.

I would have liked to actually see the bachnaal instead of just hearing hints about it from the other characters. In fact the love affairs, the bachnaal experiments, the luxury rooms in Italy were all heard from the other characters so I kept expecting Richard would experience something of this for himself but it never happened.

This is a mystery well worth reading. As the author said herself its not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. We know the character Bunny dies from the first page but the slow eerie build-up to his murder is still horrifying to watch and still a surprise when it happens. Tartt is brilliant at building a slow cold tension and the book is claustrophobic and fairly suffocating to read.

I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen I would have loved it and loved the idealised light the characters paint themselves in and the elitist world they build for themselves but now I see them building themselves from surface and pretensions.  Tartt shows us the pretty decadent looking world and then hints at the sham that it is.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

cloudsClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers, 1926, New English Library 2003

I don’t usually read crime series and in fact this may be the first “proper” modern crime novel I have read. I want to start reading more in this genre because I love reading or seeing the same protagonist over a series of books and delving deeper and deeper into their character as the series goes on. It’s why I first started reading urban fantasy (which is a bit like a supernatural crime genre). The problem is my reading tastes have changed over the years and I don’t enjoy the style with which many urban fantasy series are written now.

I started with Dorothy Sayers because I’ve seen her name mentioned a lot and know she is supposed to be one of the best modern crime writers. This is the second book of her Lord Peter Wimsey series and the story starts with Wimsey taking a holiday after his last case while back in England his brother is suspected of murdering his sister’s fiancée.

It took me a while to get used to the characters and I wasn’t easily drawn to them. At one point I put the book down for nearly three weeks and had to force myself to pick it back up. The problem was I was slightly irritated that Wimsey was investigating his own brother’s case and was given respect and privileges by the police because of this merely because he is a Lord. Of course Sherlock Holmes is technically also an aristocratic “amateur” detective but the difference is that Holmes could have been born into any family and you would imagine he would still end up with the ear of Scotland Yard because of who he is as an individual.

When I picked the book back up I was more in a mood to enjoy it and started to see the humour in Sayer’s writing.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Peter; “it’s so uncommonly jolly findin’ all you Yorkshire people so kind and hospitable, what? Nevermind who you are, always a seat by the fireside and that kind of thing. Excuse me, but do you know you’re leanin’ on the gate so as I can’t open it? I’m sure it’s a pure oversight, only you mayn’t realise that just where you’re standin’ you get the maximum of leverage.”

I finally got engaged when I started to enjoy Sayer’s writing and it didn’t matter so much that I wasn’t a fan of Wimsey. The rest of the cast grew on me too especially Lady Mary. The mystery and suspense of the book was very well written and it is because of all of these things I’ll probably read another Wimsey book. There’s still a chance all the characters will grow on me and I did enjoy reading Clouds of Witness.