Haunted Objects, Gender and Impossible Poisonings: Salvation of A Saint by Keigo Higashino

In recent weeks I have begun making my way through the books of Japanese author Keigo Higashino. Having teared through the brilliantly tense, inverted thriller The Devotion of Suspect X (2011), made way for me to read the second in the Detective Galileo series Salvation of A Saint (2012). I prioritised it as it is also a locked room mystery!

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Yoshitaka Mashiba, a big time CEO, runs his marriage much like his business. Yoshitaka has forced an agreement with his wife, famous tapestry and patchwork artist Ayane Mashiba, that if they can’t have children within the first year of their marriage, that they should separate. The book opens with Yoshitaka telling Ayane that time is up. He makes it quite clear that he is ready to move on, and that she should be too. Ayane, zoned out it a seemingly psychological defense mechanism, stares at a selection of white pansies ‘Not particularly showy flowers, but they’re tough’, she speaks in her head. It’s a subtle but weighty premonition of the book’s tensions to come.

Needing to get away, Ayane decides to leave Tokyo and spend the upcoming three day weekend with her parents in Sapporo, Northern Japan. She leaves the keys to her house with her young, committed studio assistant Hiromi. But when Hiromi enters the house on the second day of the weekend to find Yoshitaka lying dead in the living room, a poisoned coffee cup by his side, with all the doors and windows locked from the inside, save for one small opening in the upstairs bathroom not big enough for anyone to enter, the puzzle really begins.

Having just been thwarted by her pragmatically cold husband, suspicion immediately falls on Ayane. But how could she have poisoned her husband when she was thousands of miles away in Sapporo at the exact time Yoshitaka died? Enter Manabu Yukawa, a university physics professor, known lovingly as Detective Galileo, alongside police detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi, to explain how not to just to solve but to prove the perfect crime.

An interesting sub plotting tool, is Higashino’s take on the themes of ‘female intuition’ and the classic idea of poison being a woman’s weapon. This is an interesting angle to work with, and represents a lot of contemporary questions about gender, and gender roles. There are arguments throughout the story between old a new school ways of looking at a women’s involvement in a crime and discussions about whether the young and brilliant female detective Kaoru Utsumi (one of my absolute favourite detective characters in recent years) can detect more easily the motives of the suspects because she is a woman or because she is brilliantly observant. All this discussion is then further muddied by the fact that the lead detective on the case, Kusunagi seems to have fallen for their main suspect Ayane, and keeps trying to defend her in his wearied mind.

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Japanese Edition

Higashino gives us a strong introduction to junior detective Utsumi. We observe her first through Kusunagi’s eyes, where she happens to not be in the house observing the crime scene, but standing on the front lawn looking up at the flowers on the first floor balcony. When she finally makes her way to the body she wanders off during the chief commissioner’s explanation of the death, only to be found later staring at a cupboard where she notices that 4 champagne glasses are missing from the shelf. What looks to Kusunagi like absent mindedness, and a rejection of authority, sews wonderfully plotted seeds in our minds, and Utsumi’s incredibly detailed observances turn out to be crux points in solving the riddle of the poised coffee cup. Detective Galileo of course sees Utsumi’s brilliance, presenting her with many a challenge to draw out the young detective’s abilities. Interestingly, the Japanese TV series Galileo (ガリレオ) based on the books of Higashino, have Galileo and Utsumi as the lead characters, solving complicated crimes as a double act. 

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Masaharu Fukuyama and Kou Shibasaki as Galileo and Utsumi.

Another thing that Higashino does so well in Salvation is to draw out a foreboding and haunted sense of setting. Higashino does this through the use of a minimal cast of characters (hot housed together page after page), through a minimal amount of locations (which we constantly re-enter) and through his repeated use of objects as a site of haunted and imbued meaning.

The central crime, is an impossible poisoning, a lethal dose of arsenous acid, a brutal and convulsive poison, somehow present in a cup of coffee. This event and its memory then become the haunting elements as Higashino has his characters constantly drinking coffee, visiting tea shops and passing cups to each other throughout the rest of the book. There is even one moment where Detective Kusanagi, having spent time jumping from tea shop to tea shop decides to opt for a tomato juice, the taste of which burns his tongue due to all the tea he has drunk.

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The theologian and novelist G.K.Chesteron, author of the legendary Father Brown series of crime stories written in the early 1900’s, wrote a short essay titled ‘In Defense of the Detective Novel’. The centre of the essay takes up this idea of how the axiomatic structure of the crime story has a particular ability to imbue things with resonant meaning, the ‘romantic possibilities’ of objects and cities. The Detective novel he states:

‘…declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace… The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery…’

The use of the word ‘derisive’ (mocking) here is poignant in describing how detective stories, and maybe even more so impossible crime stories, carry so much of their power. Higashino’s characters constantly drinking and tasting these fluids don’t just haunt the book, but are a kind of mocking play with the reader, a continual reminder of what is not known (the solution) against what is known (the clues). It’s as if everyone is being poisoned over and over. Poisoned not just by fluids, but by ideas, doubts, and misplaced affections which affect the characters judgement and reason, something which they try to grasp onto, as they work to solve a crime which is at it’s heart a logical puzzle of deeply in need of solid reason. These fluids and liquids of ideas, teas and coffees, seep through the book, much like the poison seeps through the cup and into its victim. It’s a constant dark and playful reminder of what is consuming the characters.

As usual with Higashino, and with any good locked room mystery, the solution (and in this case the title) only make sense in the last few pages. The solution itself is incredibly cheeky, and I’m not sure how other impossible crime fans would feel about it, but over time it has grown on me. All the clues are indeed there for the observant reader!

I recommend Salvation of A Saint and the first book The Devotion of Suspect X to anyone wanting a taste of thriller with enigmatically puzzling elements.

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Where are all the Locked Rooms? Crime Fiction and Morality: Part 1

The heart of the traditional crime novel and the traditional locked room mystery is wonderfully, and essentially a morality tale. A tale of good and bad, with justice prevailing at the denouement. This is a deeply satisfying and important type of storytelling, and appeals to our humanity. But many modern crime works are not traditional ‘whodunits’ but ‘whydunits’ with the dark motivation of the killer being the centre of the story. Is the apparent lack of interest in the golden age locked room mystery, something to do with the time period that we find ourselves in?

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Otto Penzler is an editor of many crime collections, including the huge anthology of short stories ‘The Locked Room Mysteries’, published by Black Lizard in 2014, and is also the proprietor of the Mystery Bookshop in New York. In writing for the Independent about the seeming disappearance of the traditional Locked Room genre Penzler puts it like this:

‘Many modern readers don’t have the patience to follow the trail of clues in a detective story in which all suspects are interviewed… until all the suspects are gathered for the explanation of how the crime was committed, who perpetrated it and why they did it. It is not realistic and was never intended to be. It is entertainment, as all fiction is… or should be.’

If Penzler is right, the ‘Impossible Crime’ is the genre of crime fiction which you could say requires the most patience of all. Could I see in my own city of London, a commuter sardined in high-paced commute trying to piece together the clues to work out how a man was shot in an empty room, with the only entrance watched, to then have the still smoking gun delivered in a package only minutes later?… (Joseph Commings’ X-Street Murders if you’re interested) Maybe not… But then again, maybe I could.

There have been a number of modern Locked Room mysteries twisting their way into our minds in recent years. The BBC series Death in Paradise, originally penned by Robert Thorogood, has had 4 impossible problems. One of my favourites being the last episode of the most recent series 5 (as I write this) titled ‘Flames of Love’. This episode, written by Matthew Barry, puzzles on a victim shot in a room where the window is locked from within and her body is propped up against the inside of the door leaving no way for a killer to get out. Mark Gattis’ modern Sherlock series has contained a few impossible situations, notably where one victim was stabbed while inside a locked shower cubicle, with no weapon or assassin to be found. And casting our mind back a few years you could have seen an impossible crime every week with David Renwick’s Jonathan Creek series. There is a new 90 minute Creek episode on the way, so there is more to come from Renwick. (Check my last post for more details – I am a big Creek fan!)

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But with the exception of Creek many locked room stories today are still few and far between, usually used as openers or punctuation points to a series, and are mostly in the TV format. Comedian Miles Jupp wrote an article for the BBC saying that locked rooms still had a strong appeal, but had his doubts as to whether they could make a resurgence in the world of paper and print:

‘So could the locked room mystery stage a similar comeback in Britain? Not necessarily, according to publisher Daniel Mallory of Sphere, who consigns the locked room mystery to the world of the “cosy” crime thriller.’

The question here is, why? What is holding the impossible crime novel back (other than maybe the time needed to read one) and why would a publisher not see it as a viable investment? Well in many ways, why should they? The form itself could be seen as somewhat of an outdated one.

The height of the locked room mystery came during the reign of the classic fair-play detective novel, known as the Golden Age of detection (or GAD for crime buffs). Think Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G.K Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, all between the two world wars. These writers and many others formulated the classic ‘whodunit’ style of puzzle fiction, with plotting, clueing, misdirection and sometimes pages with a ‘challenge to the reader’ to work it all out before the detective does. The addition of the locked room, then, made these books not just a whodunnit but a ‘howdunit’, taking the puzzle element to it’s highest point.

Much popular modern crime writing does not fall easily into either of these two categories. We could call many contemporary crime stories a ‘why-dunnit’. We can find out who the killer is on the first page, sometimes the book or TV series is from the point of view of the killer themselves. What is important is why they did it, their psychology. The more brutal, thrilling and serial the murders are, and the more twisted the killer’s motives, the better. Even if their motive is that they simply just like killing (maybe the darkest motive of all).

So then, the modern psychological thriller (fast paced, gritty, psychological) and the Golden Age locked room mystery (social, contained, complex and moody) could seem like worlds apart. But essentially, as ‘crime fiction’, there are a number of things that still link these time periods together. For the purpose of this post I will discuss just one: morality.

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In our current pluralistic culture, ideas about morality and justice are (importantly) being called into question and are therefore more difficult to grasp onto. It’s not a wonder then that so much of popular crime fiction deals more with the motives behind the killer in question. For example, if someone is simply psychotic, how do we understand what they have done? Or if murdering someone seems almost essential in the narrative situation, then how do we and the other characters relate to the perpetrator, as in the brilliant inverted crime thriller The Devotion Of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. In this novel a horrible, abusive ex-husband re-appears tormenting his ex-wife and daughter, consequently being murdered in self defence, all of which we see. The enduring grip of the narrative is then about how to cover the crime up, because surely the wife and daughter are really innocent in these confused circumstances?

The thrill of many modern popular crime books comes in what lies behind the killer or what ties the killings together, the reader trying to psychoanalyse and unpick the brain of the murderer, and in that way it’s an interesting reflection on our own time period. To think that in a epoch where we are statistically safer than ever, but at the same time all the ills of the world are so easily available to watch at the click of a trackpad, we should land on such a gritty form of popular storytelling is striking. Although if you read Endless Night by Agatha Christie (not too late at night) or Margery Allingham’s stories you will see something of the horrific psychotic killer and the most brutal and gory of murders even within the golden age of detection…

But above all this, as we read a crime novel or watch a crime series we still have that same impulse that drives the whole crime genre: simply wanting to work it out. Even if modern crime works are less about means and opportunity in favour of motivation, our propensity as humans to get to the truth and to see justice prevail is not extinguished. And therefore the essence and the very beginnings of the crime novel, as both morality tale combined with puzzle, still remains at its heart. Even if the puzzle is less about how killers can escape from locked rooms, and more about how the murderer’s brain locks together.

However, in saying all this I want to acknowledge some generalisations on my part. There are many writers today still working in and around the golden age style. Take for example Sophie Hannah, and the TV series’ Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Dr Blake Mysteries and Death In Paradise. There are also many modern thriller’s with fair play elements, like Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series, the as mentioned Higashino novels and the American Sherlock TV series Elementary to name a few examples in a big list. But much of the books that make it into big posters on the platforms of train stations, are of the fast paced, often inverted, psychological crime thriller.

In regards to the title of this post where all the locked rooms? it could seem that the psychological thriller genre has all but taken over the golden age locked room format. But… there is indeed a contemporary locked room novel scene bubbling, and it may surprise you to hear that to access it, we need to look to Europe and the far east.

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In 2007 the noted locked room anthologist Roland Larcombe brought a group of crime fiction experts and translators together to create a hypothetical library of the top 100 locked room mystery novels. In the final results a huge 40 percent of the books chosen were French titles. The full list can be found here. Arguably the first Locked Room Mystery proper the fantastic The Mystery of The Yellow Room was written by french author Gaston Leroux, who then went on to pen The Phantom of the Opera. Continuing from there is the legacy of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. In their own right they both wrote many famous locked room novels, which appear on the top 100 list by Larcombe. And together under the nom de plume Boileau-Narcejac they wrote, among many other works, the noir classic Vertigo, adapted by them for cinema at the request of Alfred Hitchcock. Interestingly, these works by Boileau-Narcejac alongside other french authors like George Simenon could also be said to have been the start of the ‘whydunnit’ genre, where the killers and criminals are more interesting than the detectives. Other writers such as the hyper prolific Paul Halter, who has written some 40 Locked room mysteries in French, continue to carry the impossible crime mantle right up to the present day.

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And to search further afield in Japan, the classic detective novel and the locked room mystery are absolutely thriving. Take for example the wonderfully complex and brutal Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada where an artist is killed by an unknown weapon within his studio, locked from the inside. His 6 daughters then all go mysteriously missing from a bath house, their body parts found scattered all over Japan, set out by a riddled code.

But the problem here is, barely any French or Japanese locked room novels get a translation into English. This could leave English readers thinking that the locked room book is all but dead, when in many cases it is most definitely alive! So, maybe the locked room mystery genre hasn’t vanished as much as we might think, and every time one makes it’s way into the UK many seem to love it. Who knows, maybe we will see a resurgence in the world of books. But they may have to be translated from Japanese or French first!