by Keigo Higashino (translated by Giles Murray)
If you want to know why Japan’s Keigo Higashino is the most popular novelist in Asia – and quite possibly the world – you could do worse than read this new English edition of Newcomer.
The novel, first published in Japanese in 2009, effortlessly unites two separate – and for many contemporary crime writers incompatible – genre traditions. On the one hand, Higashino is a master of the plot as a puzzle (and a puzzle as the plot) after the fashion of crime’s Golden Age authors such as Agatha Christie. On the other, he doesn’t see a series of reality-defying twists as anathema to sharp social commentary or psychological insight.
This finely judged balancing act made 2005’s The Devotion of Suspect X a bona fide masterpiece and to my mind the single finest crime novel of the 21st century, but it is also present in Newcomer.
The title refers to several people, most obviously Kyoichiro Kaga, a promising and some say brilliant Tokyo detective who has been transferred to Nihonbashi district – although most of the locals he encounters translate “transfer” as “demoted”. Yoriko, who runs a local restaurant with her n’er-do-well husband, certainly believes Kaga is squandering his talents. “This is one smart detective … I don’t know why he’s wasting away as a precinct cop here in Nihonbashi, but I bet he’s got an impressive record.”
The intellectual, sensitive Kaga has starred in several previous novels, the last of which explains why he has landed in Nihonbashi: “The victim’s family had made a formal complaint about the ‘investigator’s inappropriate’ emotional involvement … (As a matter of fact, Kaga’s efforts had made a decisive contribution to unravelling what was a very difficult case).’” In other words, he is another iteration of Tetsuya Ishigami, the passionate anti-hero of The Devotion of Suspect X.
Such is Kaga’s open-minded philosophy that he doesn’t seem to mind his new post. Quite the opposite: “It’s an interesting district,” he says, before offering a seemingly offhand but characteristically enthusiastic description of an “extraordinary clock” with three faces: “I wonder what sort of mechanism it’s got.” As often happens, Kaga’s casual comment gains significance as the novel progresses.
For the time being, he is “just easing myself in, familiarising myself with the place”. This is no mean feat. Famous since the Edo period as a shopping district, Nihonbashi might welcome customers, but its citizens prefer them to pay and then leave. “The idea that new apartment buildings meant more people – including bad people – moving into their neighbourhood was a theory that Satoko never tired of expounding upon.” Satako is the matriarch of a shop selling rice-crackers: her son, Fumitaka, is the current owner.
Higashino’s title (at least in Murray’s translation) makes such suspicions and suspiciousness sound relatively mild: “Newcomer” is hardly as threatening as “other”, “alien”, “stranger” or for more conservative minds “refugee”, and applies as much to aspiring young debutantes as invaders. Yet, an uneasy ambivalent tone haunts the word from the start. “The area’s not safe any more,” declares Satoko once again. “There are just too many newcomers moving into those new apartment complexes.”
In the first of many poignant ironies, Satako proves woefully mistaken. One of the so-called “newcomers” living in an apartment complex will drive Higashino’s drama, but Mineko Mitsui turns out to be the victim of crime not the perpetrator.
Given Mitsui’s recent arrival, precise information is hard to find: “Forty-five and living alone. It’s a little unusual not to be married at that age.” Gradually we learn Mitsui has been divorced for six months, is estranged from her actor son and arrived in Nihonbashi to attempt a fresh start, working as a translator. She was strangled in her own apartment, about an hour before a friend (fellow translator, Tamiko Yoshioka) was due to drop by. Yoshioka, with whom Mitsui had been arguing, was delayed, or else she might have walked in on the murder itself.
A second irony, of course, is that Mitsui’s violent, lonely death will be investigated by another new arrival: Kaga himself. When early in the action he describes Mitsui as “a bit of a mysterious newcomer”, Fumitaka, the rice cracker baron, replies: “Just like you, then.” While Kaga is greeted with suspicion (he is a policeman, after all), he wins over almost every Nihonbashi-ite. He is charming: for one business owner he is handsome, for another a dead ringer for a samurai. He buys people food and drink, in one case cunningly to get fingerprints but mainly to establish rapport.
A good listener, Kaga is an even better observer. His near-catchphrase, “It certainly looks that way”, is often the prelude to his extracting an ulterior motive. This can be achieved by discovering how long it takes a medical insurance salesman to walk from Nihonbashi back home, what a pair of culinary scissors are used for or why workers wearing jackets are more likely to walk one way down a street than another. This last Sherlockian deduction earns the undying respect of several locals, including the hard-to-impress Satoko. It also absolves one prime suspect.
The exception to the Kaga fan club is Hiroshi Uesugi, the lead investigator from Kaga’s old Tokyo police department. “The guy’s a jerk,” he thinks to himself. Uesugi distrusts all the characteristics that otherwise make Kaga so welcome across Nihonbashi. Chief among these is Kaga’s slovenly appearance. “Hey, Kaga, you always dress like that on the job?” are his opening words. Kaga dismisses the taunt: “Not always, but most of the time … Lately it’s been so damn hot.”
Uesugi could do with a lesson from Kaga in ulterior motives. His sartorial prejudice misses a vital point. When Kaga reveals the sheer amount of legwork he has put in, visiting almost every shop in the area, Uesugi sounds disbelieving: “Don’t imagine the shopkeepers are too thrilled to have a cop swinging by all the time.” Kaga explains he thought so, too, “that’s why I do my best not to look like one”, making Uesugi look the fool, and not for the last time.
Kaga’s doggedly clever pursuit of the truth mimics a tour around Nihonbashi. This informs the structure of Higashino’s narrative, which evolves by revolving a little like a gyroscope. Each section, divided into short chapters, is situated at one location, often a shop, or follows a particular character: Mitsui’s friend Yoshioka or, ultimately, Uesugi himself.
This allows Higashino – and indeed Kaga – to return to events or people and view them from different angles. So, what looks suspicious becomes a red herring and what seems inconsequential takes on significance. This owes much to Kaga’s attention to detail, and his habit of beating his fists against an object until it yields.
Certain motifs are repeated often enough to reach the status of themes. Kaga meditates on that three-faced clock with an intensity that makes you draw parallels not only with Higashino’s elegant handling of time, but the novel’s social units, which are often divided into trios: one-child families, married couples with an elderly relative to care for, generations from grandparents to grandchild. Like the clock, they face away from each other, at odds in more or less extreme ways. Ultimately, it is family love, not family hate, that Kaga will fix upon.
Nihonbashi, too, seems a proxy for the wider world. More than one of its residents make mention of the peculiarities of the Tokyo character. Satoko notes “our natural dislike for anything underhand”. “I’m a trueborn Tokyoite. I’d rather die than break a promise,” the insurance salesman is quoted as saying. Higashino puts these sentiments to both positive and negative use: the same character can display profound loyalty to another, and also keep devastating secrets.
A similar double edge is visible when Higashino unveils another vital clue – a traditional wooden spinning top, which its seller insists is “handmade from exclusively Japanese materials”. When Kaga asks why, the shopkeeper replies: “I don’t like to sell things without knowing exactly what’s in them.”
Putting aside the irony that this same top may have been put to deadly use, the toy’s exclusively Japanese provenance tallies with the central theme of distrust shown to outsiders. Is it fanciful to interpret this pointed symbol as expressing both Japan’s self-protective isolationism on the world stage and the dark undercurrents of violence that at times resulted from it?
What makes such thoughts all the more impressive is the way Higashino insinuates them into our consciousness. He is helped in this by Giles Murray’s smooth translation and by Kaga, who is one of the more beguiling and gentle of crime solvers. Modest and easily moved, he uses imaginative empathy every bit as much as deduction to discover the truth. This allows his creator to glide rather than hammer his points home – be they about emotion or loneliness in the Japanese character. Higashino is a master and Newcomer is a masterclass in crime fiction.