Math and mystery in modern Japan

By Carlo Wolff
February 7, 2011

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Murder, philosophy, forensics, and a culture of repression are among the ingredients of “The Devotion of Suspect X,’’ Keigo Higashino’s first major US publication. A best-selling novelist in his native Japan, Higashino has delivered a book that ratchets up tension to the end, providing excitement and insight into the psychology of modern Japan along the way. Translated by Alexander O. Smith, “Devotion’’ reads like noir.

This fiction evokes matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls that disclose a set of figures of diminishing size. Higashino expertly unwinds a tale focusing on the gap between the homeless of suburban Tokyo and the intellectuals and capitalists who lord over it. The setting is bleak, the mental gymnastics complicated, the emotions high but repressed.

This is the story of Yasuko Hanoaka, an attractive box-lunch salesgirl who lives with her teenage daughter, Misato. Togashi, the abusive husband Hanoaka divorced, visits her apartment out of the blue, gets into a fight with Misato, and winds up dead. Panicked, the women need help. Enter brilliant mathematician Ishigami, Hanoaka’s neighbor, who has been dogging Hanoaka at the restaurant where she works. She’s helpless and unaware, unlike Ishigami, and other characters who come into her world like Yukawa, a physicist who spars with Ishigami over philosophical approach, and Kusanagi, the detective assigned to the case when a corpse, its face smashed beyond recognition and its fingerprints untraceable, washes up on the shore of the Old Edogawa River.

The obvious suspect is Hanoaka, but her alibi is hard to crack. Kusanagi then turns his attention to Ishigami, enlisting Yukawa in his probe. The friendship between the scientists, who attended university together, confirms Kusanagi’s suspicions; meanwhile, Hanoaka becomes attracted to Kudo, the wealthy owner of a printing company.

What’s compelling about “Devotion’’ is the intricate web of interrelations between the protagonists. Who better to check out Hanoaka’s alibi than her neighbor Ishigami? Who better to suggest that move than Yukawa, Ishigami’s friend? Ishigami, of course, agrees to shadow Hanoaka to deflect attention from him, in a clever version of bait-and-switch. But when the oblivious Hanoaka finds herself drawn to Kudo, a recent widower, the conflicted Ishigami makes a dramatic move, offering himself to the police in a kind of sacrifice. The ending is operatic, particularly after so methodical a buildup. And Ishigami, while not a sympathetic character, always rings true.

Ultimately, “Devotion’’ is about the life of the mind: Ishigami is above all a teacher, not a very nice one but a very good one. His hobby is picking at solutions to apparently intractable math problems. While the relationship between Ishigami and Hanoaka is the heart of “Devotion,’’ the one between the mathematician and the physicist Yukawa is the plot driver. They came together and diverged at university:

“Ishigami built his theorems with the rigid blocks of mathematical formulas while Yukawa began everything by making observations. When he found a mystery, he would go about breaking it down. Ishigami preferred simulations; Yukawa’s heart was in actual experimentation.’’

Where Ishigami fantasizes — an unrealizable affair with Hanoaka is the prime example — Yukawa reasons. The methodical, rigid Ishigami becomes trapped in his own equations. Higashino leaves us wondering whether the mathematician is coldly delusional or raving mad in this heady thriller.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at


By Keigo Higashino

Translated, from the Japanese, by Alexander O. Smith

Minotaur, 298 pp., $24.99