The Magazine

Tokyo Mysteries

Why Japan's most popular novelist is so popular.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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In the popular imagination, Japan is a tech-obsessed cyber utopia awash in neon lights, “bleeding-edge” electronics, and, of course, robots. While there is some accuracy in the clichés, it’s also true that Japan remains a nation of serious writers and readers, and not just of comic books: Its publishing industry is one of the world’s most robust, generating $22.5 billion in 2011. (In the same period, with three times the population, American publishers grossed $27 billion.) On the Tokyo subway, one often finds more commuters engrossed in novels than in smartphones.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Detective Galileo in 'Suspect X' (2008)

Masaharu Fukuyama as Detective Galileo in 'Suspect X' (2008)

FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC.

So when the bookworm nation that produced masters such as Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobe Abe crowns a new “most popular” author, it’s worth paying attention. And for the last several years, Japan’s most widely read author has been Keigo Higashino.

Higashino is a mystery writer, although his novels also delve into the well-worn realms of love, loyalty, and guilt. He’s most famous in his home country for a series of mysteries featuring a hardnosed Tokyo homicide detective named Kusanagi, who, reluctantly, turns to his old college buddy-cum-rival, a brilliant physics professor dubbed “Detective Galileo,” to help him solve tough cases.

And those cases really are tough. In The Devotion of Suspect X, which appeared in English last year and was made into a popular movie in Japan in 2008, Kusanagi is vexed by the seemingly unimpeachable alibi of a woman who had the only means and motive in the murder of her abusive ex-husband. The resolution, arrived at with the help of Detective Galileo, is as ingenious as it is genuinely shocking.

Salvation of a Saint is the latest Higashino novel to be translated. The plot is deceptively simple, yet maddeningly labyrinthine: A man who has just announced his intention to leave his wife turns up poisoned in his own living room two days later. A spilled coffee cup lies next to the victim; the coffee tests positive for poison.

While the husband did have a mistress, there’s really only one suspect: his betrayed wife. The problem? The wife was 500 miles away from Tokyo when her husband was poisoned. Not only that, there’s no evidence that the poison was left in the house for the husband to consume: The coffee, the coffee filters, the water filters, even the bottled water in the house are found to be poison-free.

The process of unraveling just how an aggrieved wife could have managed to bump off her unfaithful husband, and from such a distance, makes up the bulk of this engaging, albeit annoyingly challenging, mystery. Kusanagi has as hard a time as any reader figuring out how the wife accomplished this feat. Indeed, the most hardened mystery aficionados—raised on a diet of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Murder, She Wrote—will find this one a tough nut to crack. But fear not: Once again, Detective Galileo comes through in a pinch.

Paradoxically, while the main characters in this series can seem as flat and even a trifle clichéd (Kusanagi is a cynical chain-smoker in a leather jacket, while Detective Galileo is a fitness freak in a tight T-shirt), the supporting characters add a rich texture to these tightly plotted mysteries. In Salvation of a Saint, the inner monologue of the victim’s mistress is convincing, even quite touching, as it reveals a woman torn among feelings of guilt, grief, and shame. In Devotion of Suspect X, a supporting character commits an act of astonishing generosity, which speaks to the power of human loyalty.

One of the minor pleasures of these books is the little things that a foreign reader learns about Japanese culture, things the casual visitor to Japan would probably miss. Take Kusanagi’s retrograde attitude towards the increasing number of female workers in the Tokyo police department. Or the endless fretting and doting by the parents of the few children who appear in the book, which suggests that Japan’s notorious birthrate problem might have more to do with the Japanese valuing children too much rather than too little.

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.