One of the unexpected joys reading Keigo Higashino’s crime novels is realizing there’s more to solving a “mystery’ than just figuring out who the villain is. More often than not we – the reader – have full access to the thoughts and provocations of nearly everyone involved as Higashino seldom employs a traditional first or third-person narrator, quickly swapping between potential suspects and innocent bystanders as his gifted detectives affect their very existence. Sometimes this is straightforward, sometimes linearity itself is discarded altogether. The traditional logic puzzle of fingering the perp seems less important as simply trying to recreate just what happened.
Higashino may be the most popular writer in Japan, and certainly one of the most prolific – think James Patterson and John Grisham mashed together and you’ve got an inkling of both his popularity and style. He’s known for two similar, yet distinct series of detective novels: Detective Galileo, hugely popular in Japan as both novels and blockbuster TV and film adaptations, and the Police Detective Kaga series, of which Newcomer is the second to appear in English following 2014’s superb Malice (originally published in 1996 as Akui).
While his Galileo mysteries tend to be more sprawling epics, sometimes fantastically so, Detective Kaga mysteries mostly focus on smaller, more isolated cases and the people affected by them. Such is the case with Newcomer, originally published as Shinzanmono in 2009, and like most of Higashino’s novels quickly became a hit television drama. One doesn’t have to be familiar with the previous Kaga mystery, Malice, or other Higashino novels to appreciate how disruptive even the smallest changes can affect the otherwise quiet normalcy of a community and those existing within it.
Things kick off, as they almost always do, with a murder. Or the investigation of a murder. The body of 45-year-old Mineko Mitsui was found strangled in her Kodenmacho area apartment. There was no signs of a struggle, indicating she may have known her attacker, but given Mitsui’s own status as a ‘newcomer’ to the area the hunt for the perpetrator will be anything but simple. Enter Kyoichiro Kaga to the scene, a Tokyo detective freshly arrived to the bustling Nihonbashi district for reasons only hinted at (though longtime Higashino fans will surely know his backstory).
Quick-witted and highly observant, Detective Kaga is described as having a “razor-sharp mind and bloodhound nature” for spotting details others miss, like how the time of day helps dictate the different sartorial choices made by salarymen as they come and go from work. Those wanting an eccentric genius detective with unconventional methods will get exactly that with Detective Kaga.
While most western mysteries tend to focus on more personal or procedural aspects, Higashino prefers his readers embrace the more emotional and intellectual aspects of the cases, and people. In a way, this makes Detective Kaga our surrogate tour guide through some of Tokyo’s lesser-seen neighborhoods as he grills anyone who may have had contact with the victim. From this investigation a cast of personalities that would make Agatha Christie jealous swells the ranks of possible suspects, and a tapestry of modern Japan begins to take shape, some threads leading to more significant – and satisfying – conclusions than others.
Where most Western crime series tend to follow the extended narrative style, with as much (if not more) focus on their lead detective’s personalities Higashino’s novels – at least the ones published in English thus far – still manage to feel self-contained. Those used to the complexities of Patterson’s Alex Cross or Connelly’s Bosch may find Higashino’s distanced approach with Detective Kaga possibly a bit sterile, this is usually balanced with unexpected lessons and fascinating details on whatever Higashino happened to be researching at the time.
They’re also distinctly Japanese, which means certain cultural *ahem* distinctions may drive some of the more woke Western readers a little batty, especially as Japanese society remains intrinsically patriarchal, especially as details about hidden relationships begins to emerge between the different intergenerational parties. Thankfully, Newcomer features an excellent translation by Giles Murray, rendering dialogue and local colloquialisms more natural and less stoic than many translations from Japanese often come across. Haruki Murakami’s latest epic, Killing Commendatore, was a good example of how such translations can struggle when attempting to wrestle massive literary undertakings into natural-sounding conversations – two translators were needed to bring that tomb to English readers.
Newcomer is a mystery, sometimes a mystery unto itself, as the true meaning of its title could refer to any number of its characters – or even those western readers unfamiliar with the Japanese middle class. Fret not, as these and other secrets will surely be revealed before Detective Kyoichiro Kaga concludes his highly unconventional, though effective, investigation. Honestly, I’m not sure how realistic any of his methods could possibly be, but one thing we quickly learn when entering the world of Higashino is that the fun part isn’t just figuring out who dunnit, or even why they dunnit, but a thoughtful examination of the two can be just as fulfilling.