Malice – Crime Fiction from the Most Beautiful Country on Earth
I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan, and I’m still with giddy with excitement after visiting such a remarkable and wondrous place. But as this is a crime fiction blog, I will not ramble on like an enthused tourist, but instead cut straight to my book review. I had to admit to our Japanese hosts that although I’ve read crime fiction from many different countries I was still woefully behind when it came to Japanese practitioners of the genre. They recommended Keigo Higashino’s Malice, and as I’d heard great things about Higashino’s smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X, I was happy read it in a single sitting on the long flight home.
When a critically acclaimed author, Kunihiko Hidaka, is found dead in his office Detective Kyochiro Kaga realises he has a locked room mystery on his hands. This is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit. The killer soon confesses but that confession is tainted by lies and distortions. Kaga has to distinguish between fact and fiction in the life and death of the author Hidaka. Was fellow author and discoverer of Hidaka’s corpse really a friend or rival to the victim? How much did Hidaka’s beautiful widow really know about her husband? There is even a detail Kaga grapples with, which I thought was a red herring but connects eventually, about Hidaka incurring the wrath of his neighbour after poisoning her cat. With Malice, the title refers not so much to the crime but the rivalry between the two writers. The novel is structured as a series of character perspectives of events immediately prior to and after the death of Hidaka, although as the novel progresses, the reminiscences stretch back years. With each perspective, falsehoods, hidden details and repressed feelings emerge from what has been explained before. Some memory is relayed verbally. At other points it is given as written text. The implicated writer Nonoguchi seems relieved that he can recount his involvement through the written word:
Detective Kaga has given me special permission to complete the following account before I leave the room I currently occupy. Why I asked to be allowed to do so is, I’m sure, incomprehensible to him. I doubt he’d understand even if I told him that it was a writer’s basic instinct to want to finish a piece he’d started, even if it was begun under false pretences.
Yet I believe that my experiences over the past hour or so are worthy of recording. This, too, I credit to writer’s instinct – though what I write is the story of my ruination.
Higashino is a writer fascinated by the act of writing and a writer’s psyche. But this is not an indulgent exercise in navel-gazing, as there is a both a clever and gripping layering of meta-fictional storytelling in the text. The interlinking of the two writers work (who wrote what and why?) is complemented by themes such as the stories the writers are telling and living off the page. The importance, if any, of writing that goes unread and unpublished, and the nature of authorship over manuscripts that have been rewritten, revised, reedited, copied and for that matter plagiarized. All of these issues are seamlessly interwoven into the many satisfying twists and turns of the narrative. Higashino has clearly had a lot of fun with this mystery puzzle-cum-thesis on the writer’s craft, and by the time you get to the last page, rather like the punchlines that used to end Elmore Leonard’s novels, you’ll realise the joke’s on you.
If there’s a flaw, I’d have to say it is the interaction between the characters being occasionally stilted and awkward. I wouldn’t necessarily say this was Higashino’s fault; despite having two translators, I suspect something has been lost in the text in the transition from Japanese to English. The characters often come across as very clever people giving speeches to one another, or as Jane Jakemen put it the novel reads like ‘a study of intellectuals doing their very nasty damnedest.’ Although this is sometimes grating, it never overwhelms the enjoyment of the story. Higashino has crafted a fascinating, meticulously plotted mystery novel, and I’m looking forward to discovering his other work and the work of more Japanese crime writers.