#214: The Notion of Commotion, and the Demotion of The Devotion of Suspect X (2005) by Keigo Higashino [trans. Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander 2012]

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Every so often, a novel is adopted by more mainstream fiction when it is in fact pure genre.  Typically the result of this is that those of use who read the good stuff in our own genre have to put up with a ripple of brouhaha while we’re lectured by the broadsheet darlings as they fall over themselves to recommend something as inventive or ingenious when in fact we’ve read three books more inventive or ingenious in the last month alone (or, worse, phone someone in to explain incorrectly to others who don’t know any better). In SF, say, we’ve recently been subjected to Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy which is…well, every single cliché you can name and about as awful as you’d expect, but it especially seems to be happening more and more in crime fiction.

The most recent example — well, recent-but-one — that I tried was Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2012, trans. 2014), which has 300 pages of dull small town life at the start (non-genre!) and then becomes a Harlan Coben novel halfway through (genre!).  Just read the second half; it’s a far faster and better book that way.  Mark Green has recently posted this amazing deconstruction of media darling Gone Girl, which is as accurate and savage a take as anyone will probably ever achieve, and will hopefully discourage anyone from venturing unprepared into these waters ever again.  And then in the last day or so I read the first of Keigo Higashino’s Detective Galileo novels to be translated into English, The Devotion of Suspect X (2005, trans. 2012), and I am again struck by how little the genre of detective fiction is understood by those who seek to appropriate it.

Yes, this inverted tale — that is, we’re told who committed the crime early on, and then watch the detectives try to catch them — definitely qualifies as a crime novel, but it is not a novel of detection.  Putting two mathematicians in your story because mathematicians are trained in logic and so you’ll get a thrilling battle of logic between hunter and hunted only works if you actually, y’know, use the idea of logical deduction to forward your plot.  Having your amateur detective go after the guilty party because he sort of has a vague feeling about something — and genuinely bases a huge part of his reasoning on what he perceives to be an expression of vanity from a man he has had no contact with for over 20 years — is in fact the antithesis of a detective novel.  The sheer absence of detection in this book is honestly hard to believe, and the art of logical deduction should be formally apologised to on account of how much of a liberty is taken with this concept.

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And don’t give me any nonsense about the realist school, either; the realist school doesn’t have genius amateurs who are consulted because they’re a friend of the detective, or said amateur determining the direction of the investigation because they have an intuition that they’re unable to put a name to.  It does have a clear sense of plot development and the utilisation of clues to underline the conclusions reached, however, and since none of that happens in this book we can again lay any such claims to rest once and for all.  Detective Galileo does not detect, and for a man consulted for his supposedly ironclad logical reasoning he allows a fallacy of astounding proportions past him early on which, yup, turns out to be the key to the whole thing.

It doesn’t really spoil anything if I say that the essential surprise at the heart of the novel was used by Agatha Christie, since there’s very little she didn’t do when it came to murder and obfuscation (in fiction, I mean…).  If I say that the exact same device was used by Arthur Conan Doyle in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories…well, you’ve got 60 in all to choose from, and then you need to cross-reference those with Dame Agatha’s 67 novels and 13 short story collections, so we’re not yet in spoiler territory for the majority of you.  Christie and Doyle are probably the two most widely-read crime fiction authors in the entire world — let that sink in for a moment, because it’s the kind of assertion which is usually thrown out so lightly that no-one really stops to consider its significance — and a vast number of people will have reused their ideas at various points in their writing careers.  In fact, the exact nature of an original idea in the genre is still somewhat up for grabs, as discussed previously here.

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I reckon that I could, with very little difficulty indeed, list twenty other authors who have used this exact same device to supply a mystery plot.  It probably won’t narrow it down for too many of you to say that Peter Robinson definitely has, and Ellery Queen has, and I’m pretty sure Michael Connelly has.  This establishes a fine and long-standing history of this idea within the crime and detective fiction firmament, and fixes the story that Higashino tells firmly and unarguably within this genre.  But crucially, that idea has a long-standing history, which means whenever you show me A then I am immediately going to think B, and when this is the only aspect of your plot the relies on logical deduction, well, you need to do a lot more to protect it.  A teacher mulling over the contents of the exam papers he gives his students (non-genre!) is not sufficient to hide a manoeuvre so old and creaky (genre!) that it’s been given its own sobriquet.

This is not ingenious.  Predictability, spotting a plot development in advance, obviously varies hugely from reader to reader, but when the sole piece of reasoning in the entire book that actually has any rigour put into it is around a century old, you’re not trying hard enough.  And I’m not saying Higashino is to blame — hell, I don’t know who coined the whole “We’ll sell this as detective fiction” thing — but I do know that if you look for the review of this book on virtually any well-respected publication’s website they’ll mention its brilliant construction or amazing layering or any one of the demonstrably false ideas that apparently provides some sort of insight when comparing this to a genre that has produced far better and therefore set far higher standards for itself.  The next Higashino translation, Salvation of a Saint (2008, trans. 2012), is a wonderful piece of detection and contains some equally old ideas, but crucially twists them together to disguise and utilise their various elements to different ends.  That novel runs out of steam at the half-way point, but at least it gets going; this one is a complete non-starter.

Man, I just want to read a rigorous, intelligent, well-structured piece of detection that has an interesting plot, well-developed ideas, plenty of threads on the go, some first-class surprises, and actually puts in the effort to contribute to the genre it seeks a oplace within.  Is that really so much to ask…?

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16 thoughts on “#214: The Notion of Commotion, and the Demotion of The Devotion of Suspect X (2005) by Keigo Higashino [trans. Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander 2012]

    • It’s passable; atrociously motivated and with no idea how people actually operate, but contains an idea at the end that’s clever enough if you’re not looking for it. Alas, I was told it was brilliantly clever, so took what turns out to be the answer as my immediate base assumption (and at the moment of its introduction, too) and waited for that to be swept from beneath me. Alas, it wasn’t. So, not that clever after all. Honestly, if I were you I wouldn’t bother with it.

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  1. Well, I hate to (nervously) mention it, but I enjoyed The Devotion of Suspect X really quite a lot — by no means a classic, but (I thought) constantly intriguing.

    On the other hand, I also loved and adored The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, including the first 300 pages. So there.

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    • John, I’ve consulted my lawyer and it turns out that it’s fine for you to have a contrary opinion. No more that three a year, I’m told, but possibly something can be worked out with taxes if need be…

      I think that what really gets me is that these books are…fine. Nothing special, nothing worth getting excited about, but a servicable enough way to pass a few hours proivided you don;t want to actually be challenged or surprised. And there’s absolutely a market for that kind of fiction. But it irritates me to have them sold as the most melon-twisting plot ever plotted since ever and lauded to a degree that they don’t deserve because of how trasnparent a lot of what they do is.

      Man, I am really dragging through some solidly neutrl reading doldrums at present. Don’t feel like I’ve really loved anything for bloody ages…

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  2. That all sounds rather disappointing. And yet I’m not entirely surprised as I’ve long felt that too much recent detective fiction isn’t really what it’s being sold as.
    Of course, there is a positive side to such matters – even if it’s ultimately somewhat meh to seasoned ‘tec story fans, the fact books like this may draw others to the genre is to be praised.

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    • It is to be hoped, yes. And if that in turn sees more of the excellent stuff that’s lingered OOP brought back then I guess there is a siver linging. But only if that actually happens! Though, given the great news from Curtis Evans about forthcoming Coachwhip books, there’s an argument that we’re starting to reac that point…

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  3. Oh dear, I experienced the same sinking sensation as when I was reading Brad’s take on ‘Seventh Hypothesis’. On a more positive note, it’s a nice treat that you have released multiple posts/ reviews this week, even before Thursday. 😀

    ‘Devotion of Suspect X’ was one of my top reads for 2016, and I enjoyed it even more than ‘Salvation of the Saint’. I’ve read virtually all of Christie’s novels – and most twice over – but was still caught out by Higashino’s ending. I felt differently from you with respect to the characters, and I was wondering if part of the difference might be slightly cultural? Higashino’s characters tend to be slightly alienating/ remote in an Asian/ Japanese way, but I felt that I could get under their skin – and that they got under my skin too. Perhaps my closest analogy would be Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ (sorry to change genres so sharply) – my friends from a Western background found it quite strange, while I very much enjoyed it from an Asian standpoint.

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    • The translation is horrid, so that might play a part in not capturing the characters, but my biggest issue is how poorly disguised the central ‘twist’ was. As I say,as soon as you show me that setup, I immediately expect one outcome and one outcome only…and then too many details were left too vague for it to really become anything else. And nothing goes on around this to provide any smokescreen, so you’re left with an obvious ploy being steadily approached by characters who aren’t fulfilling the promise on which the book was sold to me…I’m afraid that’s never going to go over well in my house.

      And I feel like I no longer always have a clear sense of what category of post I’m putting up these days. Thursdays are rated reviews, but things like this and The Vampire Tree are more sort of…elongated opinion pieces, I suppose? But how that’s different to a review apart from the lack of starts at the end I’m really not sure 🙂

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    • Perhaps my closest analogy would be Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ (sorry to change genres so sharply) – my friends from a Western background found it quite strange, while I very much enjoyed it from an Asian standpoint.

      I think your friends may be the odd ones out — everyone from a “Western background” with whom I’ve discussed the movie has raved about it, and the critics seem to have thought likewise.

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      • I think my friends liked it too, but they still found it strange and liked some of the other Miyazaki titles more, especially the more Westernised ones like ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, ‘Laputa’, etc.

        I guess my point is less that all Westerners would not like ‘Spirited Away’, but that there would be instances of Westerners, isolated or not, who might like it less relative to other works out of cultural dis/engagement. The converse is equally possible and true. There would be Western films that some Asians might like less on the basis of cultural dis/engagement – even if there would be other Asians who like it.

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  4. I’ve been following this thread BEFORE reading your review, and I have some things to say:

    1) Santosh’s review of Halter is almost as long as a Halter novel! Very cool!

    2) I watched that preview of the Japanese MOTOE: Poirot looks about nine, and it occurs to me that so much of this plot DOESN’T work in Japan because of issues like the lack of an international scene and so on.

    3) The Woman in Cabin 10, which is described in the blurb as “in the tradition of Agatha Christie” is anything BUT “in the tradition of Agatha Christie.” So I took a bullet for you all there!

    4) I think I have correctly figured out Suspect X without reading it, thanks to successfully cross-referencing Sherlock Holmes and Christie. It was “Silver Blaze” and The Secret of Chimneys, right?

    Gotta run! I’m working my way through 1937 mystery fiction for you!

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    • 1) Yup; I skipped where I thought there may be an excess of plot detail, but got enough of a flavour to hope it’s one we see before too long.

      2) Didn’t realise this was happening, just watched it myself. The decision to make Poirot very young seems to echo the ‘young male sleuth’ archetype of certain other Japanese shows recently brough to my attention, like The Perfect Insider or Galileo. I wonder if this is the current cultural trend. Someone will be better versed to inform us, I’m sure…

      3) I remember; we’re very grateful.

      4) These were not the two I had in mind. It spoils nothing to say that the victim in Suspect X is not kicked to death by a horse, though. In fact, no horses feature in the story at all — not even as waiters, cab drivers, or any other background staff. Weird, right?

      5) Appreciate it; am doing the same — allowed myself the purchase of two books on account of their pubication date to add to Rich’s rundown.

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  5. Hey, I never said that it was a masterpiece of logical detection, only that it was good. 😛 Which I stand by.

    I think that it’s a matter of perspective. When I first read this book, I thought the solution was going to be much darker and probably stupider/more obvious. So when Higashino dropped The Twist(TM) I was honestly shocked (especially because I noticed some of the hints and didn’t figure it out). Felt like a punch in the gut.

    But maybe I was just involved in the characters. One of the things I didn’t like about Salvation was that we never really get a look into the killer’s head, so she comes off as distant. If I read this book today, would I enjoy it as much? Maybe, maybe not. I’d like to think I would.

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