Sunday, 11 January 2015

The “Detective Galileo” Series: a Different Shade of Noir

by Laura Burden

Most detective novels tend to follow an established route: a crime, usually murder, is committed. A detective investigates it. Sometimes the detective is a senior policeman (yes, usually a male) but occasionally the detective will be a professional investigator faced with an uncooperative or bungling police force. A number of clues are evaluated but some of these turn out to be red herrings. Ultimately, the reader is satisfied when the perpetrator is caught and the crime solved. Of course there are variations, but these tend to be minor. 

Removing the suspense that comes from the perennial question of detective fiction, “whodunit?” by revealing the identity of the murderer from the outset is a bold choice and the author who chooses that path has to compensate accordingly, perhaps by eliciting strong interest in their detective character or perhaps by revealing who the culprit is but withholding details of how they managed to commit a near-perfect murder.

Keigo Higashino (source: Wiki)
Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s most famous exponents of crime and detective fiction: born in Osaka in 1958, he worked as an engineer before his prizewinning mystery novel After School propelled him to fame and enabled him to make his living from writing. He has written twelve novels and numerous short story collections. Only a fraction of his work has been translated into English (by Alexander O Smith). However, two of his novels from the “Detective Galileo” series are readily available in the UK in English – The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint. They are definitively novels in the detective genre but with some subtle differences.

The eponymous “Detective Galileo”, Dr Manabu Yukawa, is not a police officer but a professor of Physics at “Imperial University” in Tokyo. He is, however, a longstanding friend of Shunpei Kusanagi, a police detective, who asks him for help with seemingly unsolvable crimes. However, it is not a case of Yukawa being Holmes to Kusanagi’s Lestrade: we are given comparatively little detail about Yukawa’s daily life but enough for it to be clear that the principal call on his time is to his Physics research and teaching rather than amateur sleuthing, and considerably more on Kusanagi who, although occasionally stumped by a complex case, is a diligent and intelligent officer. Like many famous detectives, including Sherlock Holmes, Yukawa applies cold logic to problems that, to most people, seem unsurmountable.

In both The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint, it it obvious to the reader from the outset who committed the crime. In The Devotion of Suspect X, the victim is dead by the end of chapter one, strangled to death by his ex-wife Yasuko and her teenage daughter with an electrical cord after he turned up at their flat demanding money and becoming abusive. The next door neighbour, a seemingly dull secondary school Mathematics teacher, Tetsuya Ishigami, who we have already been told may be attracted to Yasuko, offers to help them dispose of the body and helps them construct an alibi. In Salvation of a Saint, we are told within two pages that Ayane Mashiba plans to murder her husband Yoshitaka after he asks her for a divorce – she thinks of some packets of white powder and mentally tells her husband, “you have to die too.”

In both cases, the police correctly suspect the real perpetrator of the crime. In The Devotion of Suspect X Kusanagi soon discovers that the victim planned to visit his ex-wife and she is an obvious suspect. However, he cannot penetrate her alibi and much of the tension of the novel comes from the reader questioning if the police ever will succeed in proving who the murderer is. In Salvation of a Saint the victim’s wife, Ayane, has very clear motives for killing her unfaithful husband, yet he was poisoned while she was miles away on a trip to visit her parents, drinking from a coffee machine that he had used with impunity since her departure…so as readers we are in a better position than the police, knowing rather than suspecting that Ayane is guilty…but we have no knowledge of how she managed to execute the crime.


The novels are compelling not because we want to find out the identity of the wrongdoers – we know that – but because of multiple demands on our sympathies. Kusanagi is a morally upright and sedulous detective who deserves to succeed in holding criminals to account. Despite the intellectual posturing of Yukawa, Kusanagi is never afraid to call upon the skills of his intellectual friend when it might serve justice. Equally, however, the murderers themselves are characterised subtly by the standards of the genre. Yasuko in The Devotion of Suspect X was clearly bullied and cowed by her vicious ex-husband and her crime would probably be categorised as manslaughter rather than murder in British courts; the first conversation of Salvation of a Saint encourages us to sympathise with Ayane rather than the dictatorial and arrogant husband she then decides to murder.

For aficionados of detective fiction, these novels are well worth reading. The bleak landscapes of Scandinavian crime fiction and the drinking, smoking British detective are absent but they have an unusual appeal, being character rather than plot driven, with an interesting psychological depth.

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