NOVEMBER 18, 2014
I DEVOURED Keigo Higashino’s novel Malice. I read it in one sitting, curled up on my couch with my knees tucked under a blanket. As Higashino peeled back the mystery, I felt deliciously uneasy. Somewhere halfway through the novel, however, the opening from Kathryn Chetkovich’s great 2003 essay “Envy,” started to scroll through my mind. That essay opens, “This is a story of two writers. A story, in other words, of envy.” Those lines always hit me in the solar plexus, slamming me sharp in the gut. It’s the jolt one gets when one recognizes a truth reflected in an unexpected place. Incorporating similar themes as Chetkovich’s essay, Malice is a well-written, well-plotted police procedural, and it feels like a fictional expansion of “Envy.” The two pieces speak to each other, down to their one-word title and their inclusion of a famous novelist who despises cats and inspires jealousy in the writer closest to him.
In the Chetkovich essay, the famous novelist is Jonathan Franzen. He is her significant other, although throughout the essay she only refers to Franzen as “he.” When Franzen and Chetkovich meet they are both struggling writers, although he has published two well-received novels. Soon, however, Franzen will publish The Corrections, the novel that catapulted him to the tippity-top echelon of the literati. While critics compare her partner to writers great and dead, Chetkovich continues to struggle. Though she is a truly splendid writer (she doesn’t say that, I do), she toils thanklessly in Franzen’s shadow. Chetkovich writes about envy in such a visceral fashion that the reader squirms and turns green. Franzen, she explains, is very good. But it isn’t just talent. He does the work. His writing always comes first. For these, and a million other reasons, he is a success. And, for these same reasons, his success stings, not just Chetkovich but others in his circle.
Malice, like “Envy,” is the story of two writers, and the evolution and dissolution of their personal and professional relationship. It begins on a Tuesday afternoon as the Jonathan Franzen-esque novelist, Kunihiko Hidaka, is completing the final preparations before his move to Canada, which is scheduled for the following day. Osamu Nonoguchi, Hidaka’s childhood friend and a children’s book author, has come to say goodbye. During this visit Nonoguchi makes a troubling discovery about Hidaka, who has an extreme hatred of his neighbor’s cat. (Franzen famously loves birds and hates cats.) Later that day, Nonoguchi returns to his old friend’s house to find the novelist dead, apparently murdered in his home office.
Enter Detective Kyoichiro Kaga, the lead investigator. We quickly learn that Kaga and Nonoguchi had both been middle school teachers and co-workers at the same school.
After the first chapter, the story unfolds like a tense tennis match, as Detective Kaga and Nonoguchi alternate in their first-person accounts of events. Kaga’s mission morphs from trying to discover who killed Hidaka to how the novelist was killed and, finally, why. The central mystery isn’t who killed Hidaka, but why he did it. The detective isn’t a genius — he’s an everyman-type plodding through life and police paperwork — but he is a dogged investigator. His relentlessness, not talent or brains, helps Kaga discover the dark secret at the center of the Hidaka murder mystery. Kaga shows up. He does the work. He gets to the truth. All in all, it is a rather perfect metaphor for the writer’s life. The solution is unveiled in the very last pages, and, reader, it is good.
Keigo Higashino is best known for the excellent Detective Galileo series, which has inspired films and television series in Japan. These have garnered Higashino an intense following in his home country, and, since several of the best-loved Galileo volumes have been translated into English, he has a growing fan base within the English-speaking world. All the fuss over Higashino, and his best-known character, Manabu Yukawa, the genius-physicist-cum-investigator, a.k.a. Detective Galileo, is well earned. Higashino excels in writing tightly plotted psychological thrillers where the audience is privy to facts of the mystery early in the story.
In Malice, Higashino raises the tension bit by bit, allowing the pressure to rise from one scene to the next, as the audience scrambles to figure out the criminal’s central motivation and how he might get away with the crime.
Consider, for example, the moment Kaga and Nonoguchi meet, as told by Nonoguchi in his account of the night of the murder:
A uniformed officer called out to me and led me to a police car parked outside the front gate. It was the closest I’d been to a police vehicle since the time I was pulled over for speeding. A tall man was standing next to the cruiser. If he was a police officer, he was in plainclothes, but the way the streetlights fell on him made it hard to see his face.
“Long time no see, Mr. Nonoguchi,” he said.
“Do I know you?” I stopped, squinting at the man’s face.
He stepped forward out of the shadows.
In this brief passage, Nonoguchi paints himself as the naive innocent — so clean he’s never really been near a police car. Kaga, by contrast, is a shadowy, untrustworthy figure. His face is hidden in shadow, even his law enforcement identity obscured by street clothes. It is clear who the reader can trust: Nonoguchi.
Or is it? By the next chapter, written from Kaga’s perspective, the reader begins to gain access to the whole tableau through the detective’s case notes. The alternating point of view builds suspense in a way that will surprise, frustrate, unsettle, and, finally, delight the reader.
Writers, by and large, are a covetous, isolated group. We harvest our lives and the lives of those around us for copy. While we salivate over our colleagues’ commercial and professional successes, we comfort ourselves that their sentences lack a certain poetry, the pacing drags, or their characters are shallow. We writers often mutter that the research was mushy or the thesis pedestrian. In short, we soothe ourselves, somewhat meanly, that commercial, and sometimes critical, success is a reflection of an unsophisticated, pandering public and has nothing to do with talent and hard work. But when that isn’t true, when the writer has earned the accolades and piles of cash through inspiration and perspiration, then a sort of bitter longing arises. Chetkovich’s “Envy” is the study of these complicated feelings and chronicles the miraculous beginning of a relationship between two writers, and Higashino’s Malice, too, can be read as a razor-sharp investigation of the birth of envy and how that particular emotion connects people even as it repels them. It is also a story about the moment when an ordinary person decides to subvert the social order.
Or forget all that and just tuck into Malice as a compulsively readable detective story. Think of it like a perfectly choreographed fireworks display, one where the series of small explosive revelations result in a great and satisfying finale.