This is an utter gem of a murder-mystery, a story which delights and deceives every step of the way. It’s set in Japan and was written back in 1996. They’re still using fax machines and email is far from common, a plot-point which not only forms part of the story but serves to cement it in recent history. A famous writer is found murdered in his own (locked) office; clubbed with his own paperweight and strangled with his own telephone cord. So far, so cosy. But then…
Inspector Kaga rapidly deduces who the murderer must be and sets a trap to reveal the killer’s identity. Before the book is halfway through we know whodunit. But then starts the real mystery: the motive for the crime. And this is where the story starts to get increasingly interesting.
Many thrillers and mysteries tend to close inward as the plot progresses, focusing all the more intently on one single aspect of events. Not so in Malice. Here, events spiral outward and every new theory leads to a further unpacking of past history, to the canvas growing ever larger, to the story sprawling backwards in time through the lives of the killer and his victim.
At its core is Inspector Kaga, painstakingly worrying away at loose ends and oddments, determined to find the truth of the matter. We’re also shown events from a second perspective and gradually understand that this alternative narrator may not be entirely reliable, which makes all of the plot developments more interesting to unravel.
Although Malice couldn’t be anything other than a Japanese novel, it is a surprisingly easy one for a western reader to engage with. It’s not as outlandishly odd, freaky, morbid or ghoulish as some, and was accessible and rewarding. Yet in many ways it couldn’t possibly be more Japanese if it tried: you get the impression that every twist, every chapter, every word and every syllable has been meticulously planned, examined in fine detail and then painstakingly assembled in exactly the right place. We often speak of prose being crafted but it’s seldom accurate: in Malice there’s a sense that each utterance serves a precise purpose and nothing whatsoever is superfluous. The merest aside echoes to great importance later in the narrative: it’s a very clever book indeed.
Every new chapter brought with it new insight into the main characters and their tussle of wits – one striving to disguise reality and the other patiently seeking to reveal it. Inspector Kaga is a fascinating creation; lightly sketched, like a charcoal relief or a silhouette of a man, but revealed completely in his painstaking and dedicated actions to better effect than dozens of pages of dense description.
The only part I didn’t enjoy so much was in the final stage of the investigation, where the author used a series of police interviews to guide us towards what is becoming an increasingly obvious conclusion. There seemed to be quite a bit of repetition here and an odd slowing of the pace, just when it felt more natural to gallop to the final line and share the killer’s true motivation.
The finale, when it arrived, was however truly satisfy and more than a little poignant. It speaks not only about the fictional story of this novel but to a far greater issue in modern society. In every respect, Malice turned out to be a bigger mystery and a more important story than a simple locked room murder might possibly appear. And it just goes to show that you don’t need dozens of dead bodies to spin a totally engaging thriller, one which succeeds on many different levels.
Top marks to the translator, too.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Malice by Keigo Higashino is published in English in October 2014 and will be available in paperback and ebook formats