The Devotion of Subject X – Keigo Higashino

2 out of 5

An interesting inverse mystery, Keigo Higashino’s ‘The Devotion of Subject X’ is somewhat hamstrung in its bid to build tension due to the way its story is rolled out, but remains readable thanks to a clean writing style (or at least as its been translated, by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander) and a compact, well-defined cast.

The inversion is that we know the crime and culprit up front: Yasuko’s ex-husband, Togashi, has been tracking her from job to job, apartment to apartment, and when his money-grubbing turns violent – and his attentions toward Yasuko’s teenaged daughter, Misato, become sinister – she is rather forced to attack and defend, and Togashi winds up dead. Though ready to offer herself up for this crime, Misato’s involvement gives her pause – she’d be cursing her daughter to an undeserved life. Enter Ishigami: their neighbor, a mathematician and teacher, who’s overheard the scuffle and intuited the problem at hand – and promises to take care of everything.

Detective Kusanagi is assigned to the case when a body identified as Togashi is found. The connection to Yasuko is followed, and thereafter we bounce between points of view, with Kusanagi suspecting all is not as it seems but unable to tease out the proof, and Ishigami secretly coaching Yasuko and her daughter how to reply to the police’s questions, in order for her to stay in the clear. But all of Ishigami’s calculations are are thrown into disarray with the appearance of Yukawa, a physicist nicknamed ‘Detective Galileo’ for his advisement on cases to his friend, Kusanagi; Yukawa becomes interested when hearing of Ishigami’s loose connection to the case – interviewed as a potential witness, living next door to Yasuko – as this brilliant physicist quite remembers chats with the brilliant mathematician when they were at school.

This is the main rub with the mystery: Higashino leaves cloudy Ishigami’s exact motivations, as well as the details of how he’s obscured Yasuko’s crime, and that’s what we’re uncovering, chapter by chapter. But the only avenue into this is through Yukawa’s incidental involvement. “Luck” is absolutely a component of mysteries, and crime thrillers, but there’s something about the exact nature of Yukawa and Ishigami’s friendship that bucks out of that category and in to feeling like things can only be resolved due to information that’s completely off the table to the reader: Yukawa being familiar with Ishigami’s personality. This is similar to using withheld information as a replacement for a story twist, and feels somewhat cheap. While the buddy cop relationship between the detective and the physicist, as well as the question-and-solution repartee between the physicist and the mathematician, are excellent diversions – the text is generally charming throughout – these interactions come across as exactly that: diversions, with the actual meat of the mystery delayed, as it hinges on slivers of conjecture based on, to the reader, unknowns. There is (as is hyped up in the blurbs on the back cover of the copy of the book I have) a pretty ingenious twist once details are divulged, but it came across with less impact than I feel it could have due to the way these relationships were laid out, as well as the story’s general structure. Having the crime up front is cool, but perhaps leaving more of a trail for the reader to solve along the way would’ve made the solution more impactful.

That said, I still enjoyed the story… excepting the direction taken with Ishigami’s motivations. This will very much be a subjective take (er, moreso than a review normally is, I suppose), but about partway through, Higashino goes down a certain road with the character that can only lead to a couple of endpoints – one predictable, one shallow. I was hanging on the former, hoping that the “twist” might involve it, and surprise me, but it ended up being the latter. There’s potentially a cultural read on this, but I almost think that’s too easy: Ishigami’s character type is a fairly common one, unfortunately, but it’s especially highlighted here – note the name of the book – and that makes it seem celebrated, which rubbed me the wrong way. The conclusion could, furthermore, be said to be some kind of commentary on that – the consequence of Ishigami’s actions – but I didn’t get that from it; it just seemed to be doubling down on, in a weird way, praising what I consider to be a very immature point of view. That ultimately turned a pleasing read into a frustrating one, as represented in the final rating.