Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X- How a physicist outwits a mathematician?


Keigo Higashino, being a serious author of mystery novels, lacks the cynical bone, which is why he ends up using ‘devotion’ to describe what Suspect X did to save his neighbour from being charged with murder, instead of blaming his egomania, which nudged him along the path to self-destruction.

He was like a thin crack in her apartment wall. She knew it was there, but she had never paid it that much attention. It just wasn’t worth paying attention to. His name was Ishigami- a heavyset man, with a big round face that made his small eyes look thin as threads. His hair was thinning and cut short, making him look nearly fifty, though he might easily have been much younger. He wasn’t particularly fashion conscious, always wearing the same sort of clothes. Ishigami lived next door to Yasuko and his daughter, and was a maths teacher. Men like him do not light twinkles in women’s eyes, and dwell in eternal obscurity.

Despairing over how his life had turned out, and how a brilliant and dedicated mathematician had been reduced to teaching disinterested kids in high school, Ishigami had decided to end his life a year back. But his doorbell had rung at that precise moment of weakness, and he had found two beautiful women- Yasuko and her daughter, standing outside the door. Thunderbolt had struck him hard. The monk had been in love ever since, the kind of love where the mere presence of someone fills up your existence. Every day, he used to visit the tiffin centre where she worked, to buy his lunch. That he was afflicted was quite noticeable, for even Yasuko’s employers knew about the maths teacher and his infatuation with her.

This one-sided love affair would have continued unabated but for an accidental murder committed by Yasuko, or did it happen in self-defence? This incident forced Ishigami, her next door neighbour, to come to her help in avoiding the long hands of law enforcement. The mathematician hatched an elaborate plan to befuddle the cops by managing the crime scene, disposing off the body and creating credible alibis for the mother and the daughter, with a simple twist. The alibis were genuine, but pertained to the next day. It ensured that when the detectives came knocking on Yasuko’s door, they were served with iron-clad, truthful replies, which could not be castigated away as false or contrived.

The theoretician complicated the matters by committing another crime, and presenting it as the original one, by planting clues to serve as red herrings. The cops were hoodwinked, and their investigation reached a dead end. But the mathematician could not have foreseen that his college friend, the exceptional physicist, Manabu Yukawa, aka the great Detective Galileo, was a friend of Dt. Kusanagi, would monopolize the investigation, and see through the ruse.

The story moves forward through war of wits between Dt.Galileo and Ishigami. They indulge in scientific abstractions and throw challenges at each other. Like one chides the other (doesn’t matter who says what) by referring to the unsolved P=NP problem- “What is easier? To determine the accuracy of another person’s solution, or to solve the problem yourself?” The other hits back by asking a counter- “Which is harder? Devising an unsolvable problem or solving that problem?” In this subtle wordplay, lie hints and suggestions which the physicist and the mathematician trade with each other. These discussions are the heart and soul of the novel and elevate it to the level of classics.

Sample this – “Murder is not the most logical way to escape a difficult situation. It only leads to a different difficult situation. He would never engage in something so clearly counter-productive. Of course, the converse is also true. That is, he is quite capable of committing an atrocity, provided that it is the most logical course of action.” With deductions like these, Yukawa aka Galileo zeroes in on Ishigami as the Suspect X.  He is helped by a false move from Ishigami, who quite against his wont says something to Dt. Ishigami which later piqued Galileo’s interest. “I merely take advantage of the blind spots created when students assume too much. I give them a question that looks like a geometry problem, but is in fact an algebra problem.” This clue proved enough for Yukawa to arrive at his conclusions.

The mathematician had changed the problem by expanding the time, and leaving behind a field interspersed with false clues and genuine alibis. His omissions are deliberate, and the commissions quite vicious. The physicist is able to crack the code because he deconstructs the problem into small parts, and insists on verifying everything by proper experimentation. The theory held no cracks, but Yukawa’s understanding of Ishigami’s character, and hence the possible modus operandi, leads him to the solution.

Two questions need to be asked after all is done and dusted –

a.) Was it necessary for the Suspect X to commit a heinous crime to eclipse an accidental murder,

b.) the body of Yasuko’s ex-husband is cut into six parts and disposed in three different locations. Police never recovers them. Without the recovery of the body, the police would never have established that the ex-husband was dead, and hence the questions of providing the alibis and further complications might not have arisen. What was then the necessity of complicating a simple problem?

c.)While Yasuko’s murder could not exactly be classified as non-culpable, would not have the circumstances turned her into a recipient of public and judicial sympathy, thereby increasing her chances of getting away with lesser punishment? If only Ishigami was not obsessed with becoming a martyr in the cause of unrequited love, outcome wouldn’t have been a complete disaster.

Keigo Higashino is one of my favourite authors and a major influence. He was born in Osaka in 1958, trained and then worked as an Electrical Engineer before he resigned at the age of 28 to take up writing as the full-time profession. This Japanese author has published many gems including Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint. Numerous films and TV series have been made upon his novels and short stories. Detective Galileo, a physicist by profession, is an immortal character created by Higashino, and enjoys quite a cult following. Suspect X is a whodunit, but with an inverted structure, in which the perp is revealed in the beginning itself, but the writer unveils the motives, character, and other details of the crime, as investigation gathers pace. In that sense, Suspect X is modelled on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov grapples with his fear and guilt, even as the investigation unfolds at a slow pace. Higashino delves upon feelings of loyalty, betrayal, and oppressive weight of human relations, to further his plots, and serve as reasons behind perpetration of common crime. His crimes are smartly planned, and his detectives carefully bare open the mysteries. That is Keigo Higashino’s abiding charm.

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