CHENNAI: Manabu Yukawa is second only to Sherlock Holmes in my list of favourite pompous curmudgeons of all fictional detectives. I would rather have a ‘sake’ with Inspector Kyoichiro Kaga, the other detective to feature in Keigo Higashino’s work. But Yukawa is brilliant, no doubt about that. And so is Keigo Higashino, perhaps the best currently — active detective fiction writer.
We first encounter Yukawa in The Devotion of Suspect X, a labyrinthine, compelling modern masterpiece of detective fiction. In trademark Higashino style, the reader is introduced to the crime and the criminal in the first chapter.
Yasuko Hanaoka is a single mother with a teenage daughter. She works at a local restaurant, and keeps out of trouble. Her seemingly peaceful life is interrupted with the reappearance of her estranged husband, Togashi, an abusive, evil drunkard. One day, Togashi comes by demanding money, and not stopping at Hanaoka, he starts to harass her daughter Misato. In desperation, Hanaoka and Misato manage to strangulate and kill Togashi.
Hanaoka starts to panic, and thinks of taking all the blame of the murder on herself so that her daughter is unharmed. Just then, their neighbour Ishigami, a reclusive sort of a man, knocks their door. He somehow has figured out about the murder, and offers his assistance. The body is somehow disposed of — Ishigami takes care of everything, as he had promised. We realise that he is in love with Hanaoka, is completely devoted, and will go to any length to protect her. What does he want in return, though?
Chief Inspector Kusanagi is confused. There has been a murder, he is sure of it, but Hanaoka’s alibi is watertight. Kusanagi is not a bumbler like the textbook policeman of detective stories, albeit a little bit fixated on his ideas. But, having gone about many dead ends, he consults his friend and former opponent at badminton, Professor Manabu Yukawa. Yukawa is a bit of a genius and a respected name in his field of science, but he has surprising passion for criminal detection, and has often supported the police (and especially Kusanagi) in their investigations.
Yukawa identifies Ishigami as his junior at college, a brilliant mind of the level of Yukawa himself. Ishigami was immersed in mathematics at college, and that such a brilliant mind is a schoolteacher, rather than at a more exalted position does not surprise Yukawa. Ishigami was too passionate about mathematics to let a professorial tenure come in between him and his passion. Yukawa also realises that this elaborate deception could only be wrought by someone as smart as Ishigami. The cat-and-mouse game between the two brilliant minds begins.
This is a brilliant book for a lover of detective fiction. Higashino is a master at bluffing and double-bluffing the reader. It is a mind-game, and such a sharp mind Higashino has! He has excellent writing skills for a ‘commercial’ writer — the characters are realistic and the narrative arc is flawless — but he never lets ‘writing’ come in the way of the maze he plots. The Devotion of Suspect X is a magnificent achievement.
(The writer is a financial architect in Bengaluru)