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.