Book Of The Month

Dark and dazzling

Keigo Higashino is the recipient of multiple awards for mystery writing in Japan.
Keigo Higashino is the recipient of multiple awards for mystery writing in Japan. PHOTO: SANKEI VIA GETTY IMAGES

Journey Under The Midnight Sun shows why Keigo Higashino is Japan's star writer of locked room mysteries

FICTION

JOURNEY UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN

By Keigo Higashino, translated from Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Joseph Reeder Little, Brown/Paperback/544 pages/$27.99 before GST/4.5/5

In the crowded Japanese literary underworld of dark crime novels and spine-chilling thrillers, Keigo Higashino shines like a star. Journey Under The Midnight Sun, his novel most recently translated into English, shows why.

Crimes in his fiction can be as lurid as any written by Natsuo Kirino (Out, Grotesque) - sexual assault, murder, grand larceny - and his plots as trendy and reflective of contemporary Japanese society as those of Fuminori Nakamura (The Thief) - though the delays in translation make the high-tech episodes in Journey Under The Midnight Sun quaint rather than cutting-edge.

Most important of all, his stylish narratives are rarely overwritten. Every sentence, scene and seemingly secondary character has an excellent reason for being introduced, resulting, in this case, in a 540-page narrative with the intricate folds and interdependency of the paper layers in an origami chrysanthemum.

The story opens with police detective Sasagaki regretting that he has to forgo reading a new thriller to head down to a crime scene on his day off. He soon confronts a locked-room mystery of his own: Kirihara, a pawnshop owner, has been stabbed to death in an abandoned building. There are no footprints around his corpse except those of the children who play there on occasion. A heavy stone prevents anyone from opening the door of the room where the body was found.

Suspects range from the dead man's wife and mother of his son Ryo, to the employee who might have been cuckolding him, to the single mother he might have been having an affair with. But the case grows cold even as the murder claims another victim: the dead man's supposed mistress kills herself soon after, apparently tired of struggling to support herself and her daughter Yukiho without a wealthy patron.

Keeping the psychological suspense high over more than 500 pages and continually challenging readers’ perceptions of the truth of the narrative is not easy, but Higashino does it easily.

It takes another two decades before Sasagaki pieces together the truth of what happened to Kirihara, two decades in which Ryo and Yukiho grow from frightened children into adults whose friends and colleagues are often the unlucky victims of crimes or accidents. Are they sociopaths or merely very, very unfortunate? It is a measure of the writer's skill that at the end of the novel, the reader is left both satisfied and guessing.

Higashino is the recipient of multiple awards for mystery writing in Japan, including the coveted Edogawa Rampo Award for unpublished work in 1985, yet only four of his dozens of books have been translated into English. Two – The Devotion Of Suspect X (2011) and Salvation Of A Saint (2012) – feature his most famous creation, the acerbic physicistsleuth nicknamed “Galileo”, played to perfection by Masaharu Fukuyama in television dramas and films such as Midsummer’s Equation (2013). Last year’s Malice (Minotaur Books) featured another popularin-Japan creation of his, Detective Kaga.

Journey Under The Midnight Sun is a standalone but equally blockbuster novel. First published in 1999, Byakuyako, translated as Into The White Night, inspired a Japanese TV series in 2005, a South Korean movie in 2009 and a Japanese film a year later. The Chinese translation in 2012 was one of the top 10 best-selling works of foreign fiction in China that year.

Anyone who has watched one or more of the screen adaptations will know the solution to the mystery, but the fun is in seeing Higashino pull the trick off again. This is after all the author’s typical pattern, as in the other three novels in English translation: The culprit is obvious before too long, but neither the motive behind the crime nor the methods used are apparent.

Keeping the psychological suspense high over more than 500 pages and continually challenging readers’ perceptions of the truth of the narrative is not easy, but Higashino does it easily.

His trick is to use multiple perspectives so the reader must construct his own interpretation of events, just as Sasagaki does. This results in a large cast of characters who, in less skilful hands, would have had all the charm and personality of paper cut-outs. Instead, these characters, from Ryo’s schoolmate-turned-pirate game-seller Tomohiko to Yukiho’s first husband Makoto, are sympathetic and well-rounded. Their normal eyes reflect the key characters’ twisted psyches frighteningly and also fill in glimpses of Japan changing and evolving through the hysteria of the oil crisis precipitated by the 1973 ArabIsraeli war to the technology boom of the 1980s and the golf playing bubble economy years.

Journey Under The Midnight Sun is an epic sojourn through a country – and two minds – alternately dazzling and gloomy. One is both sorry and glad when it ends. In my case, this was at dawn, after hours glued to the pages under a reading light. Your experience is unlikely to differ.

If you like this, read: Malice by Keigo Higashino, translated into English last year (Abacus Books, $17.95, Books Kinokuniya), an intricately constructed mystery about two writers inextricably linked.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Dark and dazzling'. Print Edition | Subscribe