Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. I try in this feature to include a wide diversity of crime fiction from around the world. So it’s about time I featured some Japanese crime fiction here. Japanese crime fiction is, as you might expect, quite varied, so one spotlight couldn’t possibly do it justice. But let’s at least take one look today and turn the spotlight on Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, the second in his series featuring Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa.
The action in the story begins with a tense conversation between business executive Yoshitaka Mashabi and his wife Ayane Mita, who is a well-respected patchwork quilt artist. The two have been married for a year and don’t have children. Now Yoshitaka wants to divorce his wife, since having children is an important part of his life’s plan. The two can’t settle the matter at the moment because they’ve got dinner guests coming. Yoshitaka’s business partner and attorney Tatsuhiko Ikai and his wife Yukiko will arrive soon and Ayane’s apprentice Hiromi Wakayama is already there. The dinner party goes off as planned, and the next morning, Ayane leaves to spend a few days in Sapporo visiting her parents.
Two days later, Hiromi stops by the Mashabi home and discovers that Yoshitaka is dead – killed by what turns out to be arsenous acid. Detective Kusanagi is assigned to the case, along with Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi . At first the death looks like a possible suicide. Little by little though, the evidence becomes clearer that Yoshitaka was murdered.
The first suspect is, as you might expect, the victim’s wife. As becomes clear in the novel, she had a motive. But it’s soon proven conclusively that she was not in Tokyo at the time of the death. And since the poison that killed the victim was found in a cup of coffee he drank, it’s highly unlikely that she could have been the murderer. And, as the police soon discover, there are other possible suspects.
Utsumi and later Kusanagi seek Yukawa’s help to answer the very important questions of how and when the poison got into the coffee. That’s not as straightforward a pair of questions as it seems on the surface, and until the police know the answers, it’s very hard to get evidence against anyone in particular. Once Yukawa deduces how and when the poison made its way into the coffee, the police are able to put the pieces together and find out who the killer is.
In some ways, this is an ‘impossible-but-not-impossible’ kind of a crime. As the police consider different suspects, it seems that not one of them was actually in the house at the time of the murder. So how did the coffee get poisoned? And if someone planted the poison earlier, how to explain the timing? Why didn’t the victim die sooner? Readers who enjoy tackling intellectual puzzles will be pleased that this novel contains one.
Another element in this novel is its police procedural feel. Yukawa deduces what happened, but even he admits that he can’t be completely sure he’s right. Besides, a theory isn’t enough to arrest someone. So we follow along as Kusanagi, Kishitani and Utsumi gather evidence, talk to witnesses and suspects, make sense of laboratory results and ultimately confront the killer. We also see how the police interact. Readers who are tired of ‘maverick’ police who can’t respect authority will appreciate that in this novel, the police work together as a team. They’re supervised by a reasonable boss, too. They do disagree at times, and none of them is perfect. But they respect each other and depend on one another to get the job done.
This is a small, even intimate, story. There aren’t that many suspects, and the network of relationships among them is slowly revealed layer by layer. Readers who prefer fast-paced procedurals will notice this, and will notice that there are no stakeouts, no bursting through doors, and no chasing thugs down dark alleys. Rather, this is a quiet story with subtle revelations of character, motive and history. There’s not a lot of high drama in the novel; instead, the underlying tensions that lead to the murder are as much suggested as stated.
Because the real story behind the murder is revealed layer by layer, it would spoil the novel to say too much about the interactions among the characters. I can say this though. Those interactions are critical to understanding the motive for the murder, and untangling them is key to solving it. Readers will want to pay attention to what the police learn from their evidence-gathering and their interviews, and to what is not said, if I may put it that way.
The novel has been translated from the original Japanese into American English. Readers who prefer another dialect of English will notice this, but regardless of which dialect is one’s preference, the subtlety of the story has been preserved.
This isn’t a dark, noir sort of story. But it is sad. The motive for the murder is very sad, and so is the history behind it. And it’s clear that knowing who the killer is isn’t going to make everything all right again for the people involved. That said though, it isn’t a relentlessly bleak novel. And on a side note, readers who do not like violence in their crime novels will be pleased that there isn’t any in this story. The murder is committed ‘offstage,’ and although readers witness the discovery of the body, it’s not a brutal scene.
Salvation of a Saint is an intellectual puzzle wrapped in a network of complex relationships and interactions. It’s set distinctly in modern Tokyo and features a more or less cohesive police team and an eccentric but brilliant and observant physicist. But what’s your view? Have you read Salvation of a Saint? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 18 August/Tuesday 19 August – The Bomber – Liza Marklund
Monday 25 August/Tuesday 26 August – Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane
Monday 1 September/Tuesday 2 September – A Hank of Hair– Charlotte Jay