‘Malice’ Kyoichiro Kaga #1 by Keigo Higashino – for lovers of clever puzzles and unreliable narrators

Acclaimed best-selling 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. 

I found a lot in ‘Malice’ to admire but nothing to like. If you like puzzles that are designed to mislead, to create a picture, then disassemble it and make a different picture with the same parts and then do it again until you grasp that, while the parts are real, the picture exists only in your imagination, then you’ll have a good time with this book.

It’s a clever story of competing narratives, the version of events presented by Nonoguchi and the version constructed by Kaga. Both narratives go through a couple of iterations, like jazz riffs twisting around one another. It quickly becomes clear that neither of the narratives is simple. Both contain traps for the reader that soon made me mistrust my assumptions and my ability to read the people and assess the facts.

If I had been able to surrender to my inability to see what was going on and to marvel at each revelation or reassessment as if they were the next bigger. brighter, louder cluster of fireworks in a display, I might have enjoyed this book. It turns out my control needs were greater than my curiosity and so the whole book began to feel like a prank, played on the reader by the author that initially seemed mischievous but soon felt maleficent. Bullying is a strong theme in the novel and I began to feel that I was being bullied by the narratives which lied and manipulated and pushed until they got either compliance or passivity. I think this was part of the author’s intent. As I said, easy to admire, hard to like.

Terrible things happened and or appeared to happen in this book, not least of which was a very cold-blooded murder and yet the only emotion the story generated in me was repugnance.

My impression of Nonoguchi changed as the story progressed and layers of deception were peeled back to reveal more deceptions beneath them but my one abiding impression was a deep, instinctive dislike. I believed in him and in each version of him that the story presented, not because of the details but because, no matter how his character shifted shape, there was always, at the core, a malignancy that was impossible to ignore. Admirably effective character building but focused on creating and sustaining something deeply unpleasant.

Kaga was also difficult to like and to trust. We learn almost nothing personal about the man. Even when the story is told from his point of view, we mostly get reports of what he learnt from whom and some partial sharing of the questions he’s pursuing but nothing about his conclusions. Like Nonoguchi, he is in control of his emotions, he is strong on insight but untroubled by empathy and he is relentless in his pursuit of a version of events that he can prove to be true. Yet, beneath the calm and the logic, it is easy to sense his animosity toward Nonoguchi. Everything about the man affronts him, long before he understands enough to know if that affront is justified. Oddly, instead of cheering Kaga on and seeing him as a champion of truth and a speaker for the dead, I found myself seeing him as a man obsessed with destroying a man he disliked.

The plotting really is very clever. It’s also very original. As the twists and turns are the main sources of pleasure in the book, I won’t go into them here except to say that they are very well done. This is a mystery in the way that magic tricks are a mystery. Some of us want to know how they’re done. Others just want to enjoy the surprises each illusion generates. Keigo Higashino caters to both tastes. What he does not do is deliver a thriller. This is a book that requires patience. It’s a hunt that isn’t a chase. The pace isn’t pulse-pounding, it’s more like the slow stalk of a predator.

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