A workmanlike mystery, The Devotion Of Suspect X is mostly notable for doing what its airport-reading American equivalent does, but with slightly better prose and fewer gratuitous stabs at creating emotional interest: It briskly kills the bad guy in the first two chapters, then gets on with the story. Longsuffering Yasuko Hanoaka, a single mother who has had to move to escape her ex-husband, finally snaps when he shows up at her new door. When she and her daughter accidentally kill him, Yasuko prepares to turn herself in as the sole perpetrator to spare her daughter. Enter devoted neighbor Ishigami, a high-school math teacher capable of crafting the perfect alibi: too secure to be broken, carefully designed to seem plausible rather than concocted.
Ishigami puts his life on the line for Yasuko because he loves her. Until the inevitably twisty series of reversals at the end, author Keigo Higashino generates tension not from the question of whether the cover-up will be exposed, but from the precise nature of Ishigami’s crush. Is he a menace who will demand love (or at least that Yasuko not see other men) in return for his services? Or is he merely a chilly genius at her service, able to separate his feelings from his meticulous wish to see his plan unfold with the elegance of a math proof?
Higashino’s functional writing avoids the choppy, short chapters and barely literate wording of too many contemporary time-killers. While it’s far from elegant (“‘Erm,’ Kusanagi said hesitantly”), it avoids the sin of overwrought emotions dragging down what’s meant to be a fun brain-teaser. Much of Suspect X is talk rather than action. Its most coyly ambiguous relationship is between the detective on the case (Kusanagi) and his physicist friend, Dr. Manabu Yukawa. In repeated conversations, the two kick around hypotheses for what could have happened, patiently teasing out possibilities and rejecting alibis. This is the mystery thought process at its cleanest and most pared-down.
In its final stretch, Suspect X doesn’t know when to quit: Even after the ingenious solution is unveiled, there’s still a final denouement with an impact that's meant to be tragic and emotional rather than intellectually satisfying. That’s too much weight for Higashino’s skeletal prose to handle. He’s adept at creating a brain-teasing setup, less so at giving it emotional weight. Like the ambiguous mathematical genius masterminding the plot, Higashino can’t do real feeling, but his execution of cerebral parts is spot-on.