Book review: Keigo Higashino cements his position as Japan’s most innovative crime writer
Higashino’s new novel weaves across time before returning to the present for a denouement that’s intellectually satisfying and emotionally engaging
A Midsummer’s Equation
by Keigo Higashino
“Japanese people are oddly uninformed about what is good about Japan.” So says Dr Manubu Yukawa, a brilliant physicist at Imperial University, brilliant occasional sleuth (known to envious counterparts in the police as “Dr Galileo”) and the brilliantly cool, mildly eccentric star of three previous Keigo Higashino crime novels.
Yukawa’s specific criticism concerns how his fellow countrymen underestimate their home-grown wine production. This, he explains, illustrates a broader cultural schism between urban centres and rural creativity: “There are a lot of people out in the countryside doing their darnedest to make amazing things, but no one notices. Tokyoites write off this wine as ‘too local’ without even tasting it.”
Evan Yukawa might admit that Higashino himself is an exception to his own rule, an example of Japanese talent who has been embraced by vast numbers of his compatriots. Higashino’s debut, the extraordinarily intense psychological thriller The Devotion of Suspect X, sold by the million and was adapted as a movie. Subsequent books – Malice, Salvation of a Saint and Journey Under the Midnight Sun – have been bestsellers in his homeland and across the world.
It’s some achievement for a writer who consistently challenges the confines and conventions of the detective series. Although characters such as Yukawa recur, Higashino’s novels are linked less by a cast list and more by a shared aesthetic. Intricate and gripping, his stories tend to start in one place and veer off into the distant past before looping back to chase their tails as seemingly trivial or innocent details gradually attain significance: the past and internal life of a solitary maths teacher (The Devotion of Suspect X); the seemingly distant relationship between a damaged schoolgirl turned entrepreneur and the strange son of a murdered man (Journey Under the Midnight Sun).
Despite the contemporary and near-contemporary settings (mostly in Japanese cities), there is something classical and even Western about Higashino’s plotting, which might win Agatha Christie’s approval. While there is more than a hint of Hercule Poirot in the urbane but uncompromising Yukawa, his true peer may just be Conan Doyle’s ruthless Professor Moriarty, only with compassion and a heart. What puts flesh on these elaborate skeletons is the passionate, emotional and human stories that drive the plots in the first place: enduring love, jealousy, deception, betrayal, manipulation and secrets.
Perhaps the strange brew of tones, influences and settings explains why Higashino is drawn to outsiders, marginal places and pivotal times. Like Journey Under the Midnight Sun, A Midsummer’s Equation includes a quasi-myth inspired by clock hands pointing straight up to 12. In this case, it is said you can see crystals shimmer in the ocean at exactly midday.
The ocean in question lies off Hari Cove, a once prosperous and even idyllic summer resort that has seen better days. It lost its lustre to slicker, shinier global resorts long before (“fun places. Like Disneyland, or Hawaii”), and the global recession of 2008 removes even more polish: “No one got jealous when you were going to Hari Cove,” thinks teenage Kyohei, whose aunt and uncle own the Green Rock Inn. This business, at least, has limped to the end of the holiday season. Other local enterprises such as the pizza restaurant are closing for good. The inn, however, may not be far behind.
Kyohei is our guide into the novel, sent to Hari Cove while his parents are away on business. They own that most Higashino-esque of enterprises: a clothing boutique (one also turned up in his previous book). Also awaiting Kyohei at the Green Rock Inn is his older cousin, Narumi, who moved to Hari Cove from Tokyo as a teenager. We first meet her as she is cycling to a town meeting with Desmec (the Deep Sea Metals National Corporation). The company wants to drill for “hydrothermal polymetallic ore”, a potentially valuable resource found in rock on the seabed off Hari Cove. Along with her friend Sawamura, Narumi leads an environmental protest against the group. “To Narumi, they were the enemy.” Yet Desmec might just secure Hari Cove’s economic future, and it gathers an impressive team of experts to explain the potential scientific and economic benefits of its work, not to mention its efforts to protect the near-legendary seascape.
One of these advisers is none other than Dr Yukawa, who as ever values his independence more than taking sides. One minute, he’s upbraiding a Desmec employee for misleading the meeting (“If there’s something you’re not going to be able to do, you should just be honest and admit it,” he says when a development manager makes conservational claims he cannot keep); the next, however, Yukawa is accusing Narumi of naivety: “You may be an expert in environmental protection policy, but when it comes to science, you’re an amateur … If you truly want to come up with a solution that allows both, you’ll need to have the same amount of knowledge and experience … Only by respecting the other side’s work and way of thinking can you open a path for compromise.”
Yukawa might just as well be describing his investigative method which weds scientific investigations (firing water bottles into the ocean, tapping on walls to understand architectural structures) with burning curiosity about other people: “Every word the physicist spoke felt like a physical thing, probing something deep inside her chest,” Narumi thinks late in the action. While he asks pointed questions of Narumi and her parents, he does so kindly, with an awareness of human frailty. His severe but avuncular relationship with the chaotic Kyohei is especially charming and tender.
The crime that initially attracts Yukawa and the local police force is the death of Masatsuga Tsukahara – the only guest at the Green Rock Inn other than Yukawa and also a retired Tokyo policeman. The tragedy lures powerful city detectives who quickly realise that their former colleague didn’t die accidentally or by his own hand; he was murdered. As Tokyo cops and local law enforcement vie to solve the case, two questions emerge: what was Tsukahara doing in Hari Cove and who could have killed him?
Yukawa realises before anyone that the answers lie at the Green Rock Inn and in the fraught past of the Kawahata family. As in Higashino’s best work, the unveiling of the crime is both intellectually and emotionally revelatory. To understand that murder, he needs to review an older crime involving Hidetosho Senba, a sometime resident of Hari Cove who was convicted of murdering a Tokyo hostess, Nobuko Miyake.
That an ancient crime is connected to another in the present is hardly out of the crime fiction norm. That identifying the connection brings tears to the eyes is less common. It is a testament to Higashino’s writing that you feel deeply for a man who seems reviled by everyone else. Even more impressive is the way he allows us access to Senba’s raw memories at the very moment that the action picks up pace. It is brilliantly achieved and turns a twist in the tale into heartbreak.
Senba has something about him of Tetsuya Ishigami, the anti-hero of The Devotion of Suspect X, whose dedication to another person becomes an act of self-sacrifice extreme enough to verge on the suicidal. Only the relationship and feelings come from a different place entirely.
Within the context of a genre driven by greed, treachery and endless acquisitiveness, such selfless, almost spiritual motivation is refreshing to say the least. Then again, I would expect nothing more of Keigo Higashino, one of the best and most innovative crime writers at work anywhere in the world.