The Devotion of Suspect X: Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O. Smith)

The Devotion of Suspect XHow much do you love this title? The Devotion of Suspect X. It’s like expensive chocolate melting in my mouth, just the right amount of just the right words put together in just the right way. Even if I didn’t have other reasons for wanting to read this book, the title alone would have been enough to get me on board.

But! Of course, I have other reasons. I always have other reasons. One of which was my incessant search for books I haven’t read that I might want to read. I try to read a wide variety of books, so that I don’t get bogged down in a particular genre or style of book. But I’m still me and I’m still human, so I have preferences, places in the bookstore I always look first. (Hello, science section!) Which is why I check out what people around me are reading, friends, strangers on the bus, whoever. Finding something to read that you wouldn’t normally read is actually kind of hard. It helps when you have friends who have very different tastes in everything. And fortunately I do. 

One friend in particular loves suspense in all its forms, while this is a genre I can generally do without. And she insisted that I read The Devotion of Suspect X. Which falls in the mystery novel section of the bookstore, a place I rarely go. I used to looooove mysteries when I was a kid (Trixie Belden, in particular), but I haven’t really been to interested in that genre’s offerings as an adult. With the rare exception of Natsuo Kirino, whose work I cannot get enough of. (Even the often confusing and rarely mysterious mystery that was Grotesque.) And interestingly, I saw a lot of parallels between Suspect X and Kirino’s incredible Out.

The stories are very, very different. Out is four women working in a boxed lunch factory suddenly dealing with a murdered husband, while Suspect X is a math teacher being found out by a physicist. But they do share certain elements: the abusive husband who is murdered by the abused wife in the first few pages, the fact that it is the cover up of this murder that is the actual mystery. And like Kirino, Higashino has also won the Naoki Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award.

But unlike Kirino’s Out, Suspect X stars a mathematician and a physicist. It might as well have been written expressly for me. As far as I’m concerned, not enough mathematicians make it into fiction. (Off the top of my head, only Cryptonomicon (and other assorted Neal Stephenson books, he is bringing the math) and The Housekeeper and the Professor come to mind.) And even better, Higashino does not shy away from talking about actual math, in a way that I think would not be threatening to people who don’t share my love of all things mathematical. In fact, the physicist Yukawa unravels the mystery with the help of a little thing called the P vs NP problem. (Don’t be frightened, though. Yukawa explains it much better than the link.)

The whole thing starts when Yasuko’s abusive ex shows up at the boxed lunch shop (Out!) where she works now, after many years working as a hostess. He insists he wants to get back together, but she sends him packing. And you know, high fives to her! But then he comes by her apartment, and she realizes he knows everything about her new life. And when he attacks her daughter Misato, she kind of loses it and kills him. And Misato kind of helps. So there they are stuck with this corpse in their hallway when Ishigami, the high school math teacher from next door comes over and offers to help them out. And then things get all kind of complicated.

After that, you get to follow Detectives Kusanagi and Kishitani try to figure out who killed who. Kusanagi is friends with university physics professor Yukawa, who he jokingly refers to as “Detective Galileo”, which is where the series gets its name. (Yes, it’s a series.) And it turns out that Yukawa was in the same class as Ishigami in university and is delighted at the chance to renew their friendship and solve math problems together once again. (Yes, they really do this.)

The story part of the book is fun as hell, puzzles within puzzles within puzzles. And again, they talk about math. And actual math problems. I can’t deny how much I love that. But I did feel that the writing was a little flat at times. The words have a utilitarian feel, like they are there only to serve the plot. And while that may be true, I do love a perfect moment and I don’t feel that I really got any in Suspect X. The writing is competent without a doubt, but it lacked that spark that makes a book live on in my memory long after I finish it. That said, I couldn’t stop reading it. The one-upmanship of Ishigami and Yukawa is riveting. And you know, if I have not beaten you with this hammer enough yet, math. There is some good math in these pages.

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