By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterMalice
By Keigo Higashino
Little, Brown 281pp
It looks like an open-and-shut case. A man has been murdered, a police detective has identified the murderer, and the murderer has voluntarily given a detailed confession.
But when the confession comes less than 100 pages into a 281-page mystery novel, you know there’s something fishy going on.
In the first chapter of “Malice,” a best-selling author named Kunihiko Hidaka is bashed on the head and then strangled on the floor of his office. Detective Kyoichiro Kaga quickly figures out — or thinks he has figured out — who wielded the fatal paperweight, but he remains puzzled as to why. The crime seems to have no motive.
Despite having confessed, the culprit offers no help in this regard, exclaiming at one point: “Who cares about my motive? Just make up a plausible one.”
Kaga’s efforts to figure out what the killer stood to gain, and why that gain must be a secret even when the murder itself is not, are described in alternating chapters by two first-person narrators with differing views on the subject. One is Kaga himself, and the other is Osamu Nonoguchi, a children’s author who was a childhood friend of the victim.
Beginning with the murder, the book moves backward and forward in time, casting key events in a new light with each pass.
Keigo Higashino, the author of “Malice,” has written a number of mysteries about Detective Kaga in Japanese, but this is the first of those books to appear in English. Just a few of his other works, such as “The Devotion of Suspect X,” have come out in English editions, but Higashino, like the murdered Hidaka, is a literary star in this country.
Higashino’s real-life status adds some significance to his characters saying things like, “Believe me, there are a disheartening number of conditions that have to be met before a novel can become a best-seller” — especially when those conditions include the catch-22 that the author must already be established as a best-selling brand.
There’s a subtle running gag in that, outside of the publishing world, almost no one whom the police interview has previously read any of Hidaka’s books. Some only know his name because his murder was in the news. Nor have the police themselves read much of his work, and there is “bellyaching all around” when the investigation team has to divvy up Hidaka’s novels and read all of them.
One interviewee tells Detective Kaga: “I do read, but mostly mysteries. Light stuff ... I tend to stay away from the backbreaking stuff. If you have to work to get through a book, it’s not very relaxing, is it?”
This book is not for that reader. “Malice” is not very relaxing. It’s an excruciatingly complex logic puzzle, the ultimate key to which is something illogical — the bizarre lengths to which people can push themselves when in the grip of negative passions, such as the one named in the book’s title.
Where to read
Settle in at a highly visible table in a family restaurant and make comments about the book every time a waiter or waitress stops by. That way, if you need to use your time at the restaurant as part of an alibi later, the staff will remember that you were there.