Book review: Keigo Higashino's Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a subversive treasure
One reviewer dubbed him the Japanese Stieg Larsson, and he definitely deserves to be ranked with the titans of the crime genre
If David Foster Wallace had written a thriller, it would probably read something like a novel by Keigo Higashino. Compulsion, games, systems within systems, cultural bewitchment, politics: these two writers would have had a lot to discuss.
Unlike Wallace, Higashino hit the big time straight away. His debut, The Devotion of Suspect X, was one of Japan's bestselling books, with sales exceeding two million copies. It was a blockbuster of the strangest and most unsettling kind. Two people meet in a Tokyo bento shop. One is a single mother fleeing an abusive marriage. The other is a brilliant, withdrawn maths teacher whose instantaneous "devotion" to the young woman makes a term like "stalker" feel inadequate.
While the story explores the sorts of emotional states that are crime fiction staples - obsession, voyeurism, love, trust, betrayal - rarely have their workings been narrated so vividly. This is a novel as concerned with the workings of an individual consciousness as with murder plots. Then again, what made The Devotion of Suspect X such a popular success was its author's skill at excavating unbearable tension from the most mundane situations, building anxiety and unbalancing expectations.
Journey Under the Midnight Sun, the third Higashino novel to be translated into English, offers more of the same. At its dark heart is another tautly enigmatic relationship between a man and a woman. There are appalling acts, but our interest lies not in grisly details but in the ripples that undulate for years after. As one character notes towards the end: "Two decades. Kazunari couldn't understand how something that happened so long ago in Osaka could be having such an effect on his personal life in the here and now."
Indeed, the victim - a middle-aged pawnbroker, Yosuke Kirihara, whose body is discovered in an abandoned building - quickly fades from view. So too does his widow, Yaeko. Even the apparent main players - Isamu Matsuura, a nasty piece of work whom Kirihara employed, and Junzo Sasagaki, who investigates the crime - are relegated to bit-part roles, reappearing at odd moments in the digressive drama to come.
Instead, our focus is directed to the young victims of the piece. Ryo is Kirihara's blank, contained and unsettling son, whose unblinking dark eyes hint at an interior intensity on a par with the devoted Ishigami in Suspect X. His psychic counterbalance is Yukiho, an equally composed child whose external self-possession also seems a mask covering more sinister possibilities: "There are thorns in her eyes," says Eriko, her best friend at school. All this is present in her very first scene: an interrogation by Sasagaki, who suspects that Yukiho's mother might have been having an affair with Kirihara. Her serenity under pressure is disarming, but a clue might be present in her reading material: Gone with the Wind, which hints at epic turbulence to come.
Higashino opens his story in 1973, inserting little details (oil crisis in the Middle East, recently finished manga series Ashita no Joe) to set the scene. The mystery moves on over 19 years. We follow Ryo and Yukiho through school. After Yukiho's mother is killed in a rather-too-convenient gas malfunction, she is adopted by a distant relative, Reiko Karasawa, and sent to an elite school. Her pristine appearance (significantly, she is described more than once as looking like actress) seems a defence against her shamefully lowly background. She befriends Eriko, the sort of ugly duckling sidekick that is a staple of high school television; and she keeps rubbing up against the same horrific crimes: young girls who are kidnapped, stripped and raped.
Accompanying these creepy crimes is another of a distinctly modern sort. One way Higashino narrates movement through time is by following technological advances, in computers above all. This is where Ryo finds his true calling, albeit in pirating early games like Super Mario Brothers. This leads to brushes with the yakuza, and a sudden disappearance.
Kirihara's murder may have receded, but it doesn't disappear entirely. The ramifications of his death are threaded through sections about Yukiho's unhappy marriage to Makoto and Ryo's frankly weird reappearance with an increasingly bewildered girlfriend, Noriko. The novel's original sin is embodied by Sasagaki. He may be older and sadder, but he hasn't given up the ghost of solving one last case. His suspicions are reinforced by Makoto's wealthy young friend, Kazunari, who hires a private detective, Imaeda, to prove his seemingly unprovable suspicions about Yukiho. Why do so many of her closest friends and family meet with violent ends? Why is her otherwise smooth progress through life dogged by ominous rumours?
Rumour isn't a bad way to consider the novel's final third. Unable to prove what happened through the usual means of clues and proof, characters must create stories to fit the otherwise elliptical events: "Something in your voice made me think 'this man fears Yukiho Karasawa' and I want to know why," Sasagaki says at one point. The circling plots, coincidences, strange echoes of people's names, the constant shifts in identity: all these drive you forwards to discover what exactly is behind all the hints and suspicions. Is Yukiho for real, or a figment of other people's jealousy and paranoia? As the many strands dovetail, Sasagaki zeroes in on the curious bond connecting Yukiho to Ryo. "Ever heard of the goby and the shrimp?" he asks, before explaining. "Yukiho Karasawa and Ryo Kirihara have what biologists call a symbiotic relationship. One can't live without the other. They're a pair for life."
What makes Journey Under the Midnight Sun simply an intriguing and enthralling read is Higashino's peculiar narrative technique. He has a habit of chopping his story into little bits, introducing new characters or events suddenly, only to rewind afterwards to offer explanation. At one crucial moment, this reverse ends up two decades before. As a storytelling technique, it is both disorienting and enticing. The reader is constantly kept on their toes and tantalised too. The effect is a little like the rudimentary games that Ryo pirates - mazes within mazes within mazes. All the characters play one game or another - whether they are on a computer, the golf course, card table, stock market or even the dance floor. These fictions within fictions and systems within systems create a hall of mirrors that reflects the manipulations of Higashino's characters, whose plots rise and are submerged before our eyes.
Journey Under the Midnight Sun isn't a whodunnit or even a whydunnit but a what-exactly-is-being-dunnit. It is also an extraordinary work of popular fiction. You could read it as a potted history of modern Japan, an exploration of a crumbling social order (gender, class, money, obedience), a ludic literary puzzle that plays with genre expectations: Higashino's many allusions veer from mysteries to "classic girl's school story". But at no point does he forget his fundamental raison d'ecrire: to provide a tantalising mystery that keeps the pages turning.
What elevates Higashino into the ranks of the very best crime writers is his narrative ambition, his sympathy even for his most unlikeable characters and the way he has of insinuating a story into the deepest recesses of the reader's mind: one line ("I'm sure you think I'm letting my imagination run away with me") could describe his entire oeuvre. He doesn't do monsters or serial killers with advanced degrees in Edgar Allen Poe. He knows the real villains lurk in the family home or come to visit with smiles and promises of help. And there really is nothing scarier or more criminal than that.
Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (Little, Brown)