Finland-based American writer James Thompson recently lamented how Stieg Larsson’s name gets bandied about as a cynical ploy by journalists, critics and reviewers to sell more papers, ensure more web hits. I suspect this is what’s behind the quote from The Times on the cover of the UK edition of Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint, calling him ‘The Japanese Stieg Larsson’.
I can’t think why else anyone would mention Larsson in the same breath as Higashino, except that Salvation of a Saint and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo loosely share themes of the revenge wreaked by women scorned, though even that’s drawing a long bow. Interestingly, the US edition (below) doesn’t mention Larsson, going instead with ‘Edgar Award Finalist’ — though for my money, the cover design is not as interesting nor as relevant to the story (see here for differences of opinion on these covers).
Higashino is better compared with Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle, Salvation of a Saint presenting the reader with a puzzle worthy of a Golden Age mystery. That said, Salvation of a Saint is unlike anything I’ve read before, not so much a whodunnit — there are only ever two possible suspects, one if the narrator of the opening chapter proves reliable — as a howdunnit and whydunnit.
Handsome, charismatic businessman Yoshikata Mashiba is found dead on the kitchen floor in his Tokyo apartment. Beside him is a spilt cup of coffee that proves to contain poison. Yoshitaka’s wife and talented quilting artist Ayane is visiting family at the time. As far as police can determine, the last person to see Yoshitaka alive, or at least to drink coffee with him, is Ayane’s apprentice, Hiromi Wakayama. Both women are in love with the victim. Only Ayane has a motive for killing him. But at the time of his death, she was more than 1,000 km from the crime scene.
Enter the team of seasoned Tokyo police Detective (Mr) Kusanagi, Junior Detective (Ms) Utsumi, and physics professor (Mr) Yukawa. Each bring complimentary skills and perspectives to the investigation. Utsumi the rookie combines observation skills with a down to earth attitude. Holmes-like Yukawa the physicist brings what he calls ‘consistent application of the process of elimination’, while Kusanagi brings experience, his ‘sixth sense’ as a detective. The case is complicated by Kusanagi’s feelings for Ayane, widow and prime suspect.
Salvation of a Saint has the allure of Sudoku at ‘diabolical’ level: you can’t figure out how to solve it, but you can’t give up trying because you know there’s a solution. It is a measure of Higashino’s talent that he sustains such a high level of suspense in what is a largely bloodless, puzzle solving exercise involving a great deal of dialogue.
I read Salvation of a Saint in order to review it for Radio National Books & Arts Daily on 19 Dec 2012. Even if I wasn’t already put off by ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ palaver, I wouldn’t have picked up the book on the strength of the title. I hope this doesn’t dissuade other readers.
Salvation of a Saint is a fiendishly clever, engaging read with a satisfying twist. I’ll be looking for more Higashino in translation.