Not Your Ordinary Mystery

Japanese literature is a vast world, multi-faceted and all-encompassing. It is a part of the literary world that is chiefly renowned for its slice-of-life tales and historical novels. It is known for its study of the impact of the Second World War, the dichotomies in the traditional and modern Japan, and the unending shift towards Western philosophies. Japanese literature indeed has produced some of the world’s most powerful literary masterpieces that transcend time.

On one corner of this vast world lie the Japanese mystery fiction, one that is often overlooked because of the overpowering presence of seminal works by Mishima, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Oe, Murakami, among others. A name that is highly revered in the contemporary Japanese mystery fiction scene is Keigo Higashino. Originally an engineer by profession but a voracious reader of the mystery genre, he has built a name for himself with his majestic mystery fiction oeuvre, which included, Journey Under the Midnight Sun.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun is originally set in in 1973 Osaka. Yosuke Kirihara, a pawnbroker, was found dead in an abandoned building by kids playing in the ducts of the building. Tasked to investigate the crime and resolve the mystery is veteran sleuth Detective Junzo Sasagaki. As they gather clues and pieces of evidence, various motivations start to surface but not one is solid enough to further build the case on. Exploring every angle and covering as much ground as they can, they started zeroing in on a bevy of probably suspects: Fumiyo Nishimoto, the pawnshop’s lone female customer; Yaeko Kirihara, the widow; and Isamu Matsuura, Kirihara’s assistant.

“You know how the sun rises and sets at a certain time each day? In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it’s not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole lives. When people talk about being afraid, what they’re afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade.”

~ Keigo Higashino, Journey Under the Midnight Sun

The policemen initially thought that the case was straightforward. As time has proven, the truth is always stranger than fiction. Just when everyone thought that the case was sealed shut, two suspects the policemen were keen on closing on in ended up dead. Both died under seemingly suspicious circumstances but there was not enough evidence to invite further investigation. With no new solid leads, the case’s trail went stale before it started going cold.

Detective Sasagaki, quietly adamant, was neither unperturbed nor discouraged when the case reached an impasse. Working on the background, he kept tabs on key characters were involved in the crime. He narrowed down his search to two individuals related to the victim and one of the primary suspects – the victim’s son, Ryoji Kirihara, and Fumiyo Nishimoto’s daughter, Yukiho Nishimoto/Karasawa. Sasagaki’s interest was piqued by enigmatic events that befall people who are close to them. Like a predator waiting to trounce on his prey, Sasagaki remained candid, observing the pair closely to uncover the thread that connects them to the crime.

As the narrative moves forward, it slowly becomes apparent that Journey Under the Midnight Sun, is a step away from the average mystery crime novel. Whilst the typical mystery novel spans a short period, Journey Under the Midnight Sun unfolds over a period of two decades. After the events of 1973, the story diverged, following the separate lives of Yukiho and Ryoji. As the narrative progresses, a motley set of characters also gets introduced. There then develops a crux on how to keep tab on each character and how they impact the lives of the main characters.

It was also through these characters that the majority of the story was related. Their shifting perspectives gave the story a different texture and the complexion. Each character’s part of the story also accorded bits and pieces of an intricate puzzle. On the background, Higashino painted the rapidly developing landscape of Japan, subtly capturing the technological advancement and the evolving national attitude. The novel showcased parts of the Japanese way of life, from their fascination with baseball to their constantly evolving technology and to Japan’s development of the popular video game.

“No, there never was a sun in the sky over me. It’s always night. But not dark. I had something in place of the sun. Maybe not as bright, but enough for me. Enough so I was able to live in the night like it was day. You understand? You can’t be afraid of losing something you never had.”

~ Keigo Higashino, Journey Under the Midnight Sun

Higashino painted a vivid picture of a rapidly changing Japan. Development, as time has shown, comes with a price. Higashino also managed to tackle several seminal themes that were the byproducts of rapid development, such as rise of the Yakuza and its increasing influence in Japan. There were also references to copyright infringement, wiretapping, and hacking. Bleaker subjects such as prostitution, abortion, pedophilia and rape were also incorporated in the narrative. Higashino drew evocative images of voyeurism, betrayal, trust, and obsession.

With the plethora of subjects and characters, Journey Under the Midnight Sun was an ambitious undertaking. It was a labyrinthine endeavor, and a mediocre writer would have baulked at the challenge. Higashino, however, is not just an average writer. Working with a diverse set of elements, he managed to build a daunting maze. Daunting it maybe but it was also an enchanting maze the readers must navigate.

Holding all these elements together was Higashino’s writing. It was malleable, transforming along with the transitions in time and character. The typical crime novel concerns itself on building a suspenseful denouement that concludes to the unmasking of the suspect. Higashino, on the other hand, brilliantly brand of mystery Higashino’s writing demonstrated how to keep the readers engaged and tethering at the edge of their seats.

The vast ground that the novel has covered can be breathtaking. However, the intricate details and multiple storylines can also be the novel’s undoing. With each new character is a new storyline, some of which were unnecessary to the resolution of the mystery. It was these overtures that dragged the narrative. The characters were also unevenly developed; most characters were caricatures. The primary characters also don’t display sympathy, waltzing the thin line of narcissism. It was also a challenge understanding their motivations as they were studied chiefly through the lenses of constantly shifting secondary characters.

 “A cat rescued as a kitten grows up never knowing life without human protection. They’re trusting and easily spoiled. But a cat picked up when it’s already grown – even though they might seem friendly, they never stop being wary. They’ll live with you because you feed them, but they’ll never completely let their guard down. I feel like that’s how she operates sometimes.”

~ Keigo Higashino, Journey Under the Midnight Sun

Journey Under the Midnight Sun is akin to a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of piece. Working with these many intricate pieces, it takes time and patience to complete the entire image. It is no ordinary puzzle as it commenced from a gruesome murder. Ironically, the novel rarely concerned itself with the mystery. Rather, Higashino built psychological profiles buried in many layers of subplots. Higashino’s dynamic and engaging writing managed to hold all these elements together. Higashino was at his brilliant best painting details of the Japanese way of life but the digressions weighed down on the narrative.

Rating

67%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

I am a lover of suspense and mystery fiction for it was the genre I built my reading habits on, from Mary Higgins Clark to Agatha Christie. I first encountered Higashino with Salvation of a Saint, a rather fast-paced mystery novel. It was for the same reason that I was looking forward to Journey Under the Midnight Sun; I was hoping to relive the same experience. However, Journey Under the Midnight Sun was just too long a novel that it slowly lost the essence of suspense and thrill. There were several plotlines that weighed down on the main narrative. This book, however, is not stopping me from reading Higashino’s other works. I hear Devotion of Suspect X is a must-read.

Book Specs

Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 539
Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Synopsis

A twenty-year-old murder.

A chain of unsolvable mysteries.

Can one detective solve this epic riddle?

When a man is found murdered in an abandoned building in Osaka in 1973, unflappable Detective Sasagaki is assigned to the case. He begins to piece together the connection of two young people who are inextricably linked to the crime: the dark, taciturn son of the victim and the unexpectedly captivating daughter of the main suspect. Over the next twenty years we follow their lives as Sasagaki pursues the case – which has remained unsolved – to the point of obsession.

About the Author

Keigo Higashino was born on February 4, 1958 in Ikuno-ku ward of Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Japan.

Born in a humble background, Higashino studied at Koji Elementary School, Higashi Ikuno Junior High School, and Hannan High School. At Osaka Prefecture University, he studied Electrical Engineering. During his university days, he was chosen as the captain of the archery club. He first worked as an engineer at Nippon Denso Co. (presently DENSO) but spent his evenings nd weekends writing, a hobby he started while he was in high school.

In 1983, Higashino submitted mystery novels for to the annual Edogawa Rampo Prize and in 1984, one of his works reached the final round. He made a breakthrough in 1985 when his work, Hōkago (放課後, After School), won the best unpublished mystery. A year later, he resigned from his job to pursue writing as a full-time career. He earned more prominence in 1999 when his work Himitsu (秘密, Secret, 1998) was adapted into a feature film that won the 52nd Mystery Writers of Japan Award.

Higashino is a prominent presence in the Japanese mystery genre. Perhaps his most popular work, Yōgisha Ekkusu no Kenshin (容疑者Xの献身, The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) won the 134th Naoki Prize in 2006. It also won the 6th Honkaku Mystery Award and ranked highly in annual Japanese mystery fiction book guides. The English translation of the novel, published in 2011, was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award and the 2012 Barry Award for Best First Novel.

From 2009 to 2013, Higashino served as the president of the Mystery Writers of Japan. He has also been a member of various literary award giving bodies.