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With more twists and turns than a mountain route through the Japanese Alps, Keigo Higashino’s latest murder mystery Salvation of a Saint is a seamless, well-constructed suspense novel with all the elements of a classic murder mystery, though he adds considerable fizz to the formula with a few unconventional characters and a very unlikely murder technique.
Yoshitaka is the unfortunate victim, poisoned early on in the story by arsenic laced coffee which he drinks with tepid oblivion. Despite being offed so soon, throughout the novel we learn quite a bit about him as his character is constructed in fragments that piece together to tell the story of his life.
And what an unsavory fellow indeed.
Narcissistic, duplicitous and with a chauvinistic tendency to view women solely in terms of their reproductive potential, Yoshitaka is not terribly likeable, to put it mildly. During the time of his murder he was in the process of leaving his wife Ayane because of her inability to bear him a child, a fact which he states openly with unabashed grandiosity. He was also, conveniently for the plot, in the midst of an affair with Ayane’s trusted confidant and apprentice Hiromi.
So whodunit? Was it a crime of passion committed by one of Yoshitaka’s jilted lovers past or present? Perhaps a jealous colleague? Or were Ayane and Hiromi secretly in cahoots?
The head detective assigned to the case, Kusanagi, and his cohort, Utsumi, lean towards Ayane as the prime suspect, though Kusanagi’s growing attraction toward her makes it difficult for him to remain unbiased. The bigger complicating factor in solving the mystery is the fact that Ayane was in Hokkaido hundreds of miles away during the time of Yoshitaka’s murder. Neither one a scientist, the two detectives are left to wonder about the physical possibility of a long distance poisoning.
Enter Yukawa, aka Detective Galileo. He tries to crack the impossible mystery of the arsenic laced coffee with his professor’s mind and scientist’s method. The conclusion is surprising.
Luckily, Higashino’s science is not particularly esoteric, and his story is riddled with hints and clues which render the reader something of an armchair detective.
The detectives in Salvation are in constant motion, interrogating suspects, racking their brains for a break in the case, and even watering Ayane’s plants while she’s away. Insomniacs, they observe, question and theorize with an obsessive resolve, as good fictional crime detectives are apt to do.
The novel takes place in Tokyo, though aside from the occasional neighborhood namedropping you’d never know it. The writing is fresh and modern, sometimes bordering on the generic, which ultimately gives Higashino’s work a universal appeal. At one point, the male senior detective Kusanagi tells the female Utsumi that in working together, they are equals; gender and age do not matter (does this really take place in Japan?). Yoshitaka’s preference for coffee as opposed to tea seems another deliberately modern detail.
The characters in Salvation of a Saint are not always what they appear to be and the seemingly simple turns out to be much more complex and murky than the reader could have guessed. Higashino clearly knows what he is doing and he does it well—Salvation of a Saint is compulsively readable.