Book review: Japanese sleuth solves crime by examining human nature in Newcomer

NEWCOMER By Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray Little.
NEWCOMER By Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray Little.

FICTION

NEWCOMER

By Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray Little, Brown/ Paperback/ 342 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

Who filled the ningyo-yaki cake with wasabi? And why can't Mr Yosaku Kishida make his wooden top spin?

These are the questions that detective Kyoichiro Kaga must answer to unravel the murder of 45-year-old Mineko Mitsui, who was killed in her Tokyo apartment block.

Kaga, a lowly precinct cop who has been transferred down from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, is the newcomer of the novel's title and a breath of fresh air in the stuffy Nihonbashi neighbourhood.

The archetypical eccentric detective, he ambles around the district in plainclothes asking seemingly trivial questions, each of which sheds a little more light on the central mystery of whodunnit.

As with celebrated literary sleuths such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Higashino's Kaga knows that the key to solving the most heinous crimes lies in understanding human nature.

In Kaga's own words: "We have to sift through every little detail, asking ourselves why such and such a thing occurred.

"That will eventually lead us to the truth, even if all those individual things have no direct connection to one another."

Higashino is one of Japan's most celebrated and prolific mystery writers, with more than 50 novels and several short story collections under his belt.

Newcomer is one of several featuring Kaga and was first published in Japanese in 2001.

Its spare, clean and matter-of-fact prose is characteristic of many English translations of Japanese novels.

But translator Giles Murray has also chosen to make liberal use of several old-fashioned idiomatic expressions which throw the novel slightly off-kilter.

For example, Kaga asks a character at one point: "Shall we get down to brass tacks?"

In the same chapter, another character remarks: "Jolly good, jolly good. Say hi to the little bugger for me."

These phrases strike a discordant note in the harmony of Higashino's Tokyo neighbourhood, which is characterised by shops selling old-school Japanese rice crackers, wooden spinning tops and artisanal kitchen scissors.

But despite these missteps, Newcomer is still an intriguing, enjoyable read.

If you like this, read: The Devotion Of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Little, Brown, 2012, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a best-selling thriller about what happens when divorcee Yasuko Hanaoka gets a visit from her former husband.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2019, with the headline 'Japanese sleuth solves crime by examining human nature '. Print Edition | Subscribe