MALICE is one of those (somewhat) rare books classified as genre fiction that can be enjoyed by readers of all literary persuasions. Author Keigo Higashino, who is known as Japan’s bestselling and most widely read author, basically reconstructs what we have come to consider the mystery novel in a manner that surprises, befuddles and delights while exploring the human psyche. The result is a relatively short work that is likely never to be forgotten by anyone who reads it.
The book was originally published in 1996, which may seem like forever ago (it was not) in a technological dark age (it was not). The world has “moved ahead,” so to speak, but that should not prevent you from enjoying this work, the themes of which transcend its time. The narrative is divided into nine units, consisting of the writings and points of view of Police Detective Kyochiro Kaga and teacher-turned-children’s-book-author Osamu Nonoguchi. It is Nonoguchi who discovered the murdered body of his friend and bestselling author Kunihiko Hidaka, with Hidaka’s wife also being present. What we get is Nonoguchi’s initial presentation of the facts of the incident, followed by Kaga’s observations, Nonoguchi’s subsequent revisions, Kaga’s initial conclusions, and so on. Kaga is a keen observer and is onto the murderer almost immediately. The killer, in fact, is taken into custody about a third of the way into the book.
"Author Keigo Higashino...basically reconstructs what we have come to consider the mystery novel in a manner that surprises, befuddles and delights while exploring the human psyche. The result is a relatively short work that is likely never to be forgotten by anyone who reads it."
Okay, time to go home and shut down the ride.
Except that is not what happens. Kaga gets a confession but is concerned about the motive for the killing. There is a reason for this --- if the murderer decides to recant his confession, for one thing --- and, as a result, Kaga pursues the elusive reason for the murder despite the killer’s silence concerning the matter. While the suspect is almost immediately narrowed down to one, motives abound. What is gradually revealed is that there are levels to Hidaka, the victim, that are far different from his public persona, incidents and dark sides to his personality that go back to his years in elementary and middle school.
And yet, as Kaga follows the trail of evidence into the past, he discovers evidence of everything from infidelity to plagiarism. After finding new elements and threads connected to the murder, Kaga confronts the killer with them, who reluctantly gives him a bit more of his story. There is pressure on Kaga from his superior to wrap up the case, and the killer faces a grim deadline of his own. However, Kaga is not entirely convinced that he has compiled the entire truth, and continues to pursue increasingly scarce bits of evidence, finding as much from what is not present as he does from what is there. His final conclusions will surprise the reader, but not as much as they ultimately surprise Kaga himself.
While Higashino’s prose is not flowery, it gets the job done in spades, keeping the narrative flowing smoothly (thanks in great part to the wonderful translation of Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander) and telling the reader everything that needs to be revealed, though not before its time. Those who enjoy traditional mysteries in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton will find much to love here, even as Higashino eschews the traditional form of the mystery novel. The spirit, though, remains very strong indeed. Let us hope that more of Higashino’s novels are being readied for English translation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 17, 2014