Newcomer by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray

Originally published in 2009 as 新参者
English translation published in 2018
Detective Kaga #8
Preceded by 赤い指 (Akai yubi)
Followed by 麒麟の翼 (Kirin no tsubasa)
Neither title is available in English translation at the time of posting

Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department has just been transferred to a new precinct in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo. Newly arrived, but with a great deal of experience, Kaga is promptly assigned to the team investigating the murder of a woman. But the more he investigates, the greater number of potential suspects emerges.

It isn’t long before it seems nearly all the people living and working in the business district of Nihonbashi have a motive for murder. To prevent the murderer from eluding justice, Kaga must unravel all the secrets surrounding a complicated life. Buried somewhere in the woman’s past, in her family history, and the last few days of her life is the clue that will lead to the murderer. 

Newcomer is broken into nine chapters, each based around a character who lives or works in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. These characters are all linked, directly or indirectly, to a murder that took place in an apartment in the area and while some do not know the victim well enough to be considered suspects, each is able to provide some information that will be important to learning more about the victim or understanding her movements and activities on the day of her murder.

The victim is a recently-divorced woman who works as a translator and is a newcomer to the area. She is found strangled in her apartment by a friend with an implication being made that she must have known her killer to allow them inside her home. The problem lies in understanding why someone who appears to have been well liked and was so new to the area would be murdered.

One of the team investigating the case is another newcomer, Detective Kaga, who has recently been transferred to the local police precinct. Unlike the other investigators he dresses in a rather slovenly way and seems to focus on aspects of the case that seem irrelevant. For example, he takes it on himself to investigate the origins of the box of ningyo-yaki (molded snack cakes) left at the scene and a dog that she mentioned petting in an email.

Each chapter sees Kaga pursue one such line of inquiry, speaking to the locals and attempting to get the information he needs from them. Inevitably in each case he is met with some problem that hinders that investigation and he has to use his observational and deductive skills to acquire that information anyway.

Throughout this process we remain on the outside of the investigation, seeing Kaga’s activities through the eyes of those who interact with him rather than sharing in his thought processes. There is a good reason for this as knowing why he is interested in a small detail in some cases would give away to the reader too much information about the significance of that information or what his theory is as to the solution of the murder case. Still, while he may be kept at a bit of a distance, his habit of befriending the people he is speaking with and expressing empathy for their problems does mean that he comes off as a fundamentally warm character and we are able to infer meanings and begin to recognize connections between each of the chapters.

One other slight oddity of this structure is that the investigation does not appear entirely chronologically. This happens because most of the investigations happen concurrently over a space of time and so the events at the end of one chapter could happen after the events at the start of the next one. To give a clearer example, at the start of chapter four there is a reference made to how Kaga plans to go on to investigate a matter we learned about in the middle of the second chapter.

This sort of deviation from telling a story in chronological order can sometimes feel gimmicky or unnecessarily complicated but here it made a great deal of sense to me. Given that each of the details involve a limited cast of characters, many of whom do not cross over into other strands of the story, it makes sense to consolidate that material and to focus on the information that will be gained. This not only gives additional focus to those small details, it also allows for each of these chapters to feel quite self-contained which gives the first two thirds of the novel the feel of being a series of connected short stories.

These chapters are quite varied in content and theme, though they often discuss the unique character of the neighborhood and the traditional businesses you can find there. There is also a fair amount of reflection on the increasing financial challenges that those sorts of businesses will face in the years to come.

My favorite of the chapters, though it is the one that features the least detection and the most intuition, is the third one titled The Daughter-in-Law of the China Shop. It revolves around the tensions between a man’s new wife and his mother which are rooted in a thoughtless action taken by one of them. I felt that Higashino represented the domestic disharmony convincingly, rendering each of those characters well and I really loved the way their story ended which struck me as a very appropriate and credible outcome.

The less positive consequence of this approach is that we are over a third of the way into the novel before we have a proper sense of exactly what happened in the apartment or even a proper description of the crime scene. The first chapter therefore feels a little odd as we are following the investigation of a crime without knowing much about its details. That didn’t bother me too much in terms of engaging with what I was reading – each of the stories told in the chapters struck me as interesting – but it did mean that it was sometimes difficult to relate what we learn back to the original murder case, at least early in the book.

Overall though I think it is successful and works within the context of the slower, more contemplative style of story that Higashino is trying to tell here. I think that is reflected not only in the amount of space in the book given to developing the themes about the changes happening but also in how the murder is relatively simple with a solution that is built upon just a couple of pieces of positive evidence.

I think it would be fair to say that as much as I enjoyed it, that it was not exactly what I had expected. Other than the story not being told in strict chronological order, the book reads as a pretty straightforward though entertaining whodunit. There are no big twists here, nor any intricately-worked plan to unpick. If you come at this expecting another Malice or The Devotion of Suspect X then you will likely be disappointed.

Personally though I enjoyed it and wish that more of the author’s work and the Detective Kaga series in particular would appear in translation. I find him a charming protagonist, if a little reminiscent of Columbo in that everyone underestimates him based on his appearance, and I really appreciate how observant and attuned to human relationships he is. For now however I should probably be grateful for what I have – particularly as I have a couple of Detective Galileo stories on my TBR pile.

The Verdict: Never breathtaking but very readable, this is an enjoyable and surprisingly traditional mystery story with some very appealing subplots.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

Malice by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Originally Published 1996
Detective Kaga #4
Preceded by どちらかが彼女を殺した
Followed by 私が彼を殺した
(Neither title has been released yet in English)

Acclaimed bestselling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is found brutally murdered in his home on the night before he’s planning to leave Japan and relocate to Vancouver. His body is found in his office, a locked room, within his locked house, by his wife and his best friend, both of whom have rock solid alibis. Or so it seems.

At the crime scene, Police Detective Kyochiro Kaga recognizes Hidaka’s best friend, Osamu Nonoguchi. Years ago when they were both teachers, they were colleagues at the same public school. Kaga went on to join the police force while Nonoguchi eventually left to become a full-time writer, though with not nearly the success of his friend Hidaka. 

As Kaga investigates, he eventually uncovers evidence that indicates that the two writers’ relationship was very different that they claimed, that they were anything but best friends. But the question before Kaga isn’t necessarily who, or how, but why. In a brilliantly realized tale of cat and mouse, the detective and the killer battle over the truth of the past and how events that led to the murder really unfolded. And if Kaga isn’t able to uncover and prove why the murder was committed, then the truth may never come out. 

In any mystery novel that seeks to actively engage the reader there is a question that they have to solve. The most common of these is the question of who carried out the crime but there are, of course, other questions a writer may focus on instead.

Impossible crime novels, for instance, shift the focus from who onto the question of how a crime was committed. And then there are inverted mystery novels.

As I noted in my recent Five to Try post, the most common structure for these sorts of stories is the howcatchem. In those stories the reader knows the killer’s identity but has to work out how their seemingly perfect plan will be picked apart by the detective. There is also another form that is used far less frequently – the whydunnit – in which readers learn the killer’s identity but must try to learn the reasons for an apparently senseless or counterproductive crime. Malice is an example of this latter, somewhat unusual style of mystery.

I suspect that the reason that I have not encountered many whydunnits is simply that it is a hard form to sustain for a whole novel. If you are inside the killer’s head then it is near-impossible for the writer to find a way to naturally withhold that information from the reader. Also, let’s face it, motivations for crimes are often rather repetitive. When this type of crime novel is done well however it can be an electrifying experience.

Malice is a whydunnit done well.

The novel is almost entirely told from two perspectives. One is the children’s novelist Osamu Nonoguchi and the other is Kyoichiro Kaga, the police detective investigating the murder that takes place.

Initially it seems that Osamu has been chosen as a narrator because he discovered the body of his friend, the popular novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. The first chapter certainly gives the impression that we will be in familiar whodunnit territory as it describes the events of the evening of Hidaka’s death.

The crime takes place in a locked study within a locked house to which only two people (the victim and his wife) possess keys. I suppose that could qualify the novel as being a locked room puzzle but I do not want to oversell that aspect of the book. It really isn’t anything like the focus of the book and that aspect of the solution is probably its least interesting or creative part.

Instead we soon learn information that will make the killer’s identity clear to the reader (assuming they haven’t read the book’s blurb which also gives it away). We even discover how they carried out their plan, in effect removing the questions of who and how from the reader’s consideration. The biggest question that remains for both the detective and the reader is why they have decided to do this, particularly on the eve of the victim’s relocation from Japan to Canada.

This question might initially appear to be quite simple but I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. Part of the reason for this is that the killer refuses to assist the investigation in learning about their motives yet they are willing to confess to the crime itself. This builds on to the sense of mystery the author has cultivated up to that point as we wonder what they may be trying to hide and also what their goal is in not fighting the charge itself.

The other reason that I think the questions of motivation are interesting is that it affects whether we are looking at an instance of murder or manslaughter. These two crimes obviously carry significantly different penalties but they may also affect the way we look at the crime and the killer.

In most respects I think the plot works pretty well as a puzzle though I will throw in the typical caveat that I am not sure that the reader can work out the entire solution for themselves. Rather it is a plot where everything makes sense once it is explained and I did find some aspects of the solution to be both surprising and satisfying.

While I had little difficulty following the puzzle, Detective Kaga made less of an impression on me than I had hoped. I do wonder to what extent that reflects that this was a later story in the series, even though this was the first to be translated into English. Certainly I think we get little sense of who he is away from his job which is a shame, though I did respond to his cautious, methodical approach to solving the murder and thought he showed some ingenuity at times (there is a part of the explanation for how it was worked that is really very clever).

It is in terms of its thematic discussion that I think the book really stands out. What Higashino does particularly well is explore questions of what it means to be creative and the nature of the publishing industry while telling an interesting, character-driven mystery.

His characters are interesting, credible and fully formed, particularly the two writers. I can only echo John Grant’s opinion (linked to below and stated far more eloquently than I could manage) that Higashino is particularly effective when exploring their personalities and temperaments.

Overall, I found this to be a quick but really engaging read. I would certainly be willing to revisit the author and his lead detective again in the future.

Further Reading

John Grant posted his thoughts on this book on Goodreads which he says he enjoyed even more than The Devotion of Suspect X. He particularly responded to the elements of the story that draw on writer’s preoccupations and passions which was one of the aspects I enjoyed most too.

Ella Jauffret offers up a recipe for udon noodles inspired by the book and for a coffee jelly as part of her FictionFood series.