Japanese literature has steadily grown popular all over the world in recent years. One particularly popular genre that has sent books flying off the shelves is that of Japanese murder mysteries, both classics and modern releases. Among them, Keigo Higashino (1958 – ) has come to be recognized internationally as one of the best Japanese crime writers alive today. Higashino is known primarily for writing crime fiction, murder mysteries, and thrillers, some of which are part of a series, while others are standalone novels. His first work to be published in English was a novel called Naoko (2004). Naoko can be classified under multiple genres, such as fantasy, mystery, drama, and even psychological thriller. Higashino’s latest published work in English is ‘A Death in Tokyo,’ which came out in December 2022. It is another addition to his list of pulsating crime novels.
Major Works of Keigo Higashino
The mystery novels he is best known for are ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ and ‘Malice’, the former being a bestseller worldwide. They are both unique murder mystery stories in that the killer’s identity is revealed very early on in the novel. It’s not about the “who” or even the “how”; it’s about the “why.” Not only do they explore the psychology of the killers in-depth, but also the victims and others majorly involved in the investigation, as even the detectives tasked with solving the case. Here’re a few lines about three of his best works:
1. The Devotion of Suspect X
This novel showcases a fascinating game of cat and mouse between the detective, the eccentric consultant, and the criminal. The murder is committed in the opening pages of the novel, and the reader experiences it as it happens, evoking our sympathy for the killer despite their crime. The genius neighbor of the murderer becomes a willing accomplice to help them escape arrest and sets about creating a complex scheme to mislead the police in an entirely different direction. Detective Kusanagi, the police officer in charge of the investigation, is stumped and turns to his friend Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed ‘Professor Galileo’ by the police department. He has helped them solve numerous difficult crimes in the past, and they hope he can do so again.
This approach is equal parts familiar and new. The police turning to an eccentric consultant has been prevalent since Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Yet, the idea of knowing everything right at the start does leave the reader doubtful. After all, how is the reader supposed to be interested in the mystery if they have already gotten all the answers? I was wrong in thinking so, and as readers, we are put in an unusual space in that we know more than the police do, and we see them discover clues we already know. There are multiple shifts in perspectives between the criminals, Yukawa, and Detective Kusanagi, showing us the different pieces and moves of a very intricate game of chess.
This novel is about the relationship between the killer and his victim, along with their shared past. Like with The Devotion of Suspect X, the murderer is revealed early on, but there are no consultants, just a police officer who thinks out of the box and isn’t convinced by the seemingly neat solution presented to him by the killer. Detective Kyoichiro Kaga believes there is more to the case of Osamu Nanaguchi killing Kunihiko Hidaka, his best friend, despite Nanaguchi confessing to the murder. Thus, he sets about investigating the relationship between the two men and finds out that it is very different from what it appeared to be.
This mystery is one of the many layers; when one answer is revealed, it only leaves you with more questions. Questions that Nanaguchi absolutely refuses to answer and leaves Kaga to form his own theories and investigate. The perspective shifts between Nanaguchi’s and Kaga’s, and their voices are distinct, each with their own style and way of telling their story. Not a word in this book is wasted; the psychology here is equally important, making the readers wonder which of the two narrators is on the right track and who is telling the truth.
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3. Journey Under the Midnight Sun
This is a mystery novel that spans decades. It begins with the murder of a man in an abandoned building in 1973, and Detective Sasagaki is the leading investigator in the case. Despite several clues and potential suspects, the investigation goes nowhere, and Sasagaki has no choice but to stop. However, he heavily suspects the children of the suspect and the victim of somehow being involved in the crime despite their young age and keeps tabs on them over twenty years, across the different stages of their lives.
Sasagaki’s obsession with solving the mystery is but one of the factors keeping the readers invested as we learn the impact of the crime and how it affects people even twenty years later. Though the two children are not narrators, we get an idea of their characters through the narrations of the people around them, usually minor characters. Furthermore, we get to see how Japan changes as a country over two decades, especially with the advent of technology, references to the burgeoning video game industry and more, which makes this world feel alive and like a character in itself out of the main cast. Several characters are introduced over the course of the novel, and each of them provides a piece of the puzzle, which comes together spectacularly in the end. Furthermore, it offers social commentary that mystery novels often steer clear of, such as the role of women in society and their relationship to the economy, enriching the worldbuilding and making it well-rounded.
Why Should you Read Keigo Higashino?
All novels present the mystery in a way that provides insight into Japanese life in numerous ways that we, as foreign readers, don’t usually have. An evocative Tokyo setting enhances the sense of newness to readers unfamiliar with the city and easily satisfies those who know the city as well. To readers not familiar with Japanese names and culture, some ideas and phrases may seem strange, but it definitely doesn’t detract from the experience. You can instead view it as a unique opportunity to learn more about a new culture through the lens of gripping murder mysteries!
Keigo Higashino is renowned for the twist at the end of his mysteries, often as late as the last two or three pages. That’s the case with these three books as well. His conclusions regularly leave you amazed, and each of the novels mentioned here does that in spades, in very different ways. The Devotion of Suspect X and Malice strike the right balance between being new and exciting and old and familiar, in many ways being cozy mysteries but with a twist. Journey Under the Midnight Sun takes a contrasting route, different in most aspects, and is a masterpiece for its interaction between the author and his readers.
Increasing readership abroad only means more translations of Higashino’s works, which is a win-win scenario for all mystery lovers!