fiction, review

Salvation of A Saint

It’s definitely a howdunnit, because no matter how hard the reader tries to avoid spoilers and not to take a peek at the last pages, still they’d already discover who the culprit is right after the first chapter. And the excitement (if there is any) comes from the question of how the culprit commits the murder when there is so much distance to cover.

Mashiba Yoshitaka was found dead at his home with a cup of coffee spilled all over the floor beside him. Some kind of arsenic is detected in that coffee, so it is decided that he was murdered. But who could poison him when he was all alone at home? Is it possible then that he actually committed suicide? And if he did, why?

Among all the possibilities the police could think of, there is one where Wakayama Hiromi, the young woman who first found his body, is the one who committed the puzzling crime. Looking at the fact that she had an affair with him behind his wife’s back, Detective Kusanagi deems it possible that there was a certain “love motive” behind it. But his junior, Detective Utsumi, doesn’t share the same view. Using her instinct as a woman, she doesn’t think Hiromi would do such a thing. Instead, her suspicion is directed toward the victim’s wife, Mashiba Ayane. It’s simply because if there was any “love motive,” then Mashiba Ayane would be the only one who had the “right” to murder her husband.

However, if it is really the wife who is the murderer, there is not a single evidence to prove it. She was miles away at her parents’ home in Hokkaido, how would she put poison into her husband’s coffee in Tokyo?

Mashiba Ayane, as the prime suspect, is obviously the most outstanding character in this novel by Higashino Keigo. But Higashino clearly does not want her to stand out above all the other characters, much less above the iconic Detective Galileo. Higashino makes her a very quiet, calm and inconspicuous person, pitiful even that our main protagonist, Detective Kusanagi, falls hard for her. Unfortunately, this is what makes the book so unbearable to read. It is quite impossible to sit still and enthusiastically read a crime story where the detective, who’s supposed to be clear-headed and objective in viewing and solving cases, sort of fall in love with the suspect and is blinded by his sentiments. It’s somewhat exasperating, somehow urging the reader to stop even before they get to the last quarter of the book.

Fortunately, however, the pace picks up at that last quarter, a bit too rushed maybe for some people, but it just wants to make sure that everything is revealed one by one in an appropriate way before the plot gets longer and boring. It ends quite well, in a way that our smitten detective isn’t devastated too much.

Salvation of A Saint is actually a good blend of a character-driven plot and a proper crime story; but the narrative is a bit dull at first, almost no excitement at all, and having a blinded-by-love detective doesn’t help, either. Personally speaking, this book doesn’t quite work; but for Higashino’s fans, it might do.

This book was read and reviewed for #JanuaryInJapan reading event.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

All She Was Worth

Indonesian edition’s cover

“Case solved” is always what people would expect from a crime novel. But, what if it doesn’t work that way? All She Was Worth, a work of Japanese crime fiction by Miyuki Miyabe, provides us with an alternative. Taking a different route from others in the same genre, the book combines the thing that you call “whodunit” with “whydunit” to form a twisted narrative which will take you to nowhere near a solution. Forget about the not-so-extraordinary premise, at the end of the game you will only find yourselves asking, “Will the culprit ever give up?”

Set in the early 90s’ Japan, the story starts when Shunsuke Honma, a detective on leave upon getting injured on his last duty, gets a visit from his wife’s cousin’s son, Jun Kurisaka. The young banker never cares about the Honmas, he doesn’t even come up when his aunt dies, so it’s only obvious that now he comes with a problem: his fiancée has gone missing. Honma is told that they are about to get married, but suddenly, after an argument over making a credit card, she disappeared. There’s no telling whether Shoko Sekine, the girl in question, is being kidnapped or not, but Honma has a suspicion that she ran away for fear of being found out on something. True enough, the first investigation step Honma takes leads him to the fact that Sekine has been declared bankrupt in the court for her inability to pay her debts. The thing is, Kurisaka knows nothing about this, not because Sekine never tells him, but because the girl who is his fiancée never knows that she has been bankrupt. How could it be? What actually happens? The winding path of further investigation brings Honma to a confusing discovery that the Shoko Sekine Kurisaka thinks he knows is not the real Shoko Sekine. So, who is she? Why is it that she seems to be someone who is not her?

All She Was Worth is not a mystery novel in which everything is kept secret till the last page. Somehow the questions of who and why dunit have been solved at the last 1/3 of the book. The novel itself is not actually about mystery, on the whole. It’s about crime, and whether the perpetrator will do it again, just to save her life. So anyone looking for a conventional crime fiction book with usual features and plot will definitely be disappointed. There is a thrill, of course, and it steadily lasts till the end. But the thrill itself is not something readers would usually expect from this kind of book. It’s not a thrill of suspense, it’s a thrill of tracking and investigating. As unusual as it is, though, All She Was Worth doesn’t have an out-of-this-world idea, what with the murder case and stolen identity and all. That’s said, there is a message buried deep under the narrative. It’s something to ponder about: how we live in consumerism, greed, stifling credit system, deceitful capitalism, and how people tend to imagine their dreams and happiness come true in the form of worldly goods. Our endless desire for more has turned us into mentally weak people and plunged us into deep hole of debts. And the next thing we know, we start to kill each other in cold blood.

What makes All She Was Worth a fascinating, enjoyable read is how meticulous Miyabe is in arranging every detail so that they develop into a sturdy body of plot. And it’s a tricky one. At first, I found myself baffling as to why Miyabe woud reveal “everything” just after the first investigation she makes Honma do. But then the storyline brought me to further discovery and more shocking facts, even more and more questions for me to try to find out the answers. There are more twists and turns than you’d think and, strangely enough, they won’t make you scratch your head during your reading. You could say that Miyabe is very careful with the way she lays her tricks and sets the pace into a fast, steady one. What’s more interesting is that Miyabe weaves together every detail and fact found at every step of investigation into a vivid character of the culprit. At the end of the story, we will be able to see clearly what kind of person she is, although not quite clearly what she will do, or what will happen to her, next. Every aspect of the novel is well constructed and carefully written. And Miyabe doesn’t try to waste our time with too much drama or too long explanation of each characterization. She cleverly elaborates every character through their actions, ways of thinking, and brief dialogues without being too much about it.

Overall, All She Was Worth is a work of crime fiction I’d expect to be, or at least the kind I’d prefer to read, case solved or not. Not too much drama, compact, exciting, and enjoyable. The thing that becomes my complaint here is the translation. Not that it’s bad or something. It’s just, in my opinion, there are some translated sentences that are not carefully considered, and thus become quite literal in their meanings. But that’s not really a problem, though, because it’s not so bad that it will ruin your reading. It’s still a crime novel I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone fond of the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

The Silkworm

Indonesian edition’s cover

Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, came out with a new idea, and I could imagine readers would have expected a more challenging crime story than the first one. And it apparently is, mostly. I just didn’t see the drama get a lower dose, nor the plot get any tighter, though I can say it didn’t feel any less enjoyable. More than that, the tone was very much bothersome, and the atmosphere didn’t emanate much suspense.

The crime drama begins with the disappearance of an eccentric, infamous writer, Owen Quine, after finishing his latest manuscript. His wife Leonora comes to our private detective, Cormoran Strike, for help since it is not Quine’s nature to “disappear for so long”. While Strike is desperate for a well paid gig, he cannot deny the temptation of finding the missing writer and cracking the mystery. He finds him, eventually, but not in a state anyone might imagine: dead, both hands tied behind his back, his stomach sliced open and hollow. Everything Strike discovers at the crime scene no doubt indicates murder, and questions of who and when, as usual, flow relentlessly into his head. It is not rocket science to see that the scene of the murder is set exactly the same as the last scene in Quine’s latest novel, and it doesn’t need a genius either to conclude that the murderer must be someone vaguely, and horrendously, described in the book, someone real. Someone who doesn’t want that book to be published and endanger his/her reputation.

Cormoran strike is portrayed as dramatically gloomy as he is in the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Some readers might find it hard to stand his depression and sadness, but we all know that J.K. Rowling a.k.a Robert Galbraith always wants to describe her characters as human as possible. So if that includes showing off some overwhelming feeling of brokenhearted within an ex-soldier private detective, then we have to accept it. Unfortunately, Galbraith/Rowling chooses this moment of broken heart to reveal Strike’s way of thinking, resulting in a depiction of a common man who stresses great importance of beauty and pretty looks in a woman and doesn’t really consider her personality until he regrets it and then finally turns his back on her. The way he treats Nina Lascelles might also force the reader to think of him as a man who doesn’t feel any reluctance to take advantage of a woman for his purpose. Unfortunately, again, the narrative seems to justify this depiction. It’s either because Galbraith wants to show herself as a male writer (even though she is actually a woman) so much that she immerses herself in manliness, or she’s just so sexist (I don’t want to play with the word “misogynist” here) as a woman. Anyway, putting it all aside, there is still an irresistible attraction in the whole characterization, especially among the suspects. Daniel Chard really caught my attention. His portrayal is so appealing to me not for his subtle homosexuality, nor the way he suppresses it inside him and the emerging rumor around him, but for his obvious anxiety about himself. The way he talks, the way he avoids eye contacts with people talking to him, the way his hands twitch and move… all those gestures make the reader able to feel his anxiety and bottled-up anger.

As a whole, The Silkworm is pretty much better than The Cuckoo’s Calling, but there are some disturbing weaknesses getting in the way of me enjoying it completely. If the opinion of certain characters is the voice of the writer, then Galbraith/Rowling has openly looked down her nose at romance/erotica genre in this second crime novel of hers. I didn’t expect that. I thought as a woman—though she disguises herself as a man—she would be more respectful toward works of popular fiction written by “female writers” (if that term has to exist at all). It turns out, however, that through some characters depicted working in the publishing industry Galbraith/Rowling has called romance/erotica “trash”. Well, however disappointing the tone is, I can say that The Silkworm has a good premise, a believable elaboration, and a trickier plot than its predecessor. Unlike the previous installment of the series, this book didn’t let me guess the murderer just after the first few chapters, and dragged me along the storyline to find him/her at the end of the climax instead. The many suspects with their unsettling behaviors have really fooled me and prevented me from stopping all the guesses in my mind. Many of the dialogues are also made in cuts so the reader won’t be able to know exactly what is going on in the investigation process. Despite the still dominating drama, the arrangement of the plot is enormously enjoyable. I’d forget about the lack of the suspense atmosphere here, because it might have been deliberately set so by Galbraith/Rowling to make it easier for the reader to devour than any other crime stories.

All in all, The Silkworm is not an entirely satisfying read, but I liked it. Rowling fans do not have to worry about her characteristics in writing because they’re all still there. She pays much attention to details, she’s elaborative, and a true creator of natural characters. I just wish she didn’t use that tone in it.

Rating: 3.5/5