The blunt force trauma of the opening pages in this typically Japanese murder-mystery grabbed my attention and propelled me headlong into its narrative. In uncompromising terms we learn the details of a series of seemingly unconnected suicides, of young women who throw themselves to certain death rather than face whatever stalks them. The matter of fact tone of the writing makes this passage especially chilling, gripping and extremely effective.
The whole novel is rather less stylish however; probably just as well as it would be emotionally exhausting to endure that level of ramped-up angst for the whole book. The story rapidly develops to encompass an unlucky taxi driver who happened to be at the wheel when one of the women did for herself; his nephew – the son of a disgraced official, now orphaned and bullied at school; two shadowy figures who attempt to influence the boy as he tries to untangle what’s happened, and the final potential victim, a frightened young woman who is both in hiding and concealing shabby secrets.
The orphaned young man takes on the role of investigator and gradually assembles the clues to understand why these women were targeted and who is responsible for their deaths. At the same time, he makes discoveries about his own past which change his perception of his parents, and lead him to make a life-and-death decision of his own. The nub of the story revolves around the manipulation of others and the moral and physical consequences of that abuse of trust. There’s even a ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ moment, when the protagonist is taught the skills of lock-picking and must then make clear-cut judgments about when it is acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reason.
Neatly translated into easy-flowing English, this is an entertaining who/howdunnit, laced with plenty of intriguing Japanese urban culture. It’s set in the late 1980s so pre-dates the Net, mobile phones and the like, but manages to incorporate some sinister technological developments in the sub-plots.
I enjoyed the typical ‘coming of age’ aspects of the tale rather less than the mystery itself which was cleverly constructed and artfully revealed. The main plot is entertaining and intriguing but the sub-plot about Japan’s social troubles with bullying among young people doesn’t interest me much: maybe I’ve just encountered this theme too often in recent years. I also found the deluge of characters’ names and identities in the opening chapters a little tricky to deal with – we meet about two dozen people in the space of 40 pages and keeping them all straight wasn’t easy.
The unconventional ending and the multi-layered moral messages of the story were more than enough to make up for that initial bewilderment. It also provides fascinating insights into Japanese culture, morality and society, even if things have moved on somewhat since it was written.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Devil’s Whisper by Miyuki Miyabe is available in paperback