Saturday, January 01, 2011

DEVIL-DEVIL: Engrossing New Mystery from Graeme Kent. And a New Translation: THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X by Keigo Higashino

Sergeant Ben Kella, a black man firmly rooted in the traditions of his native Solomon Islands (the archipelago northeast of Australia), is the area's senior "indigenous" police officer at a time when the British are considering letting go of their protectorate. That places DEVIL-DEVIL in 1960. Both the expatriates on hand and the Melanesians, the "natives" of the region, reckon time from World War II and the Japanese invasion -- along with the critical battle of Guadalcanal, one of the largest of their islands. And just as Kella is struggling to live down his own reputation for getting into trouble, he stumbles into a morass of "custom" crises around a corpse: the corpse of a white man who disappeared in 1942. It's the second dead body he's dealt with in his first day back on his home island, and sure to mean trouble.

Complicating the discovery of the white man's corpse is how Kella finds it: being re-buried by a newly arrived Catholic nun, Sister Conchita, who pays enough attention to native ways and traditions to realize that the chaos erupting locally might be partly calmed if the old bones were quickly re-buried. Unfortunately, the bullet hole in its skull means that Kella can't allow this to happen. And as soon as he intervenes, he and young Sister Conchita become targets of a murderous sharpshooter (with blessedly poor aim).

That's the start of a rattling good mystery that teams up these two likeable characters -- Kella with his divided loyalties (in addition to being a police officer, he's a native peacemaker with larger obligations), and Sister Conchita with her instant willingness to take a stand against any apparent injustice, no matter what the cost. And here's even better news: In bringing this book out for February 2011, Soho Crime has announced that it's the start of "the Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella Series" -- yes!!! I love the way this publisher gathers up international crime fiction and brings it home to us!

I haven't found out a lot about Graeme Kent beyond the basics that the book blurb offers -- he's been a soldier, editor, headmaster, BBC producer, and was head of BBC Schools broadcasting in the Solomon Islands for eight years. A full-time writer since the mid 1990s, Kent is the author of more than sixty books. In fact, one online resource says he's written and edited more than 120! Whatever the final number, he's seasoned and deft with words and plot, providing polished writing with humor, interest, intrigue, and a dash of suspense. It's swiftly clear in this novel that Ben Kella's opposite number, the disturbing bush master of magic Pazabosi, is directing many of the complications, and Kella's hunt for the powerful leader of the island's highland people -- who has already publicly cursed Kella -- will require all his wisdom, knowledge, and luck. Even a sultry schoolteacher who greets him up on the mountain warns him right away about Pazabosi: "He is an evil man who sups with the devil-devils," she says bluntly.

Good thing she didn't say it that way to Sister Conchita. It would have been exactly the words the young and rebellious nun required to convince her to seek for Pazabosi herself.

This book gave me a lot of fun, as well as a hunger to know more about the Solomon Islands. And although Kent isn't a native of the region, he gives a convincing portrait of what local tradition entails, as well as of the compromises that the wisest leaders can craft. Mark this one as a keeper.

* * *

I'm not as convinced about THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, a translation of a novel by Keigo Higashino that won the Naoki Prize for Best Novel -- Japan's equivalent of the National Book Award, says publisher Minotaur Books. The English-language version is scheduled for February 1 release (the original was copyrighted in 2005), and will have plenty of publicity behind it. The thing is, I can't tell whether the original writing is deliberately stiff, among multiple points of view, or whether that's an artifact of the translation. There are some appealing characters here -- a divorced mom named Yasuko who'll do nearly anything to protect her young daughter, and a persistent detective, Manibu Yukawa, who knows when he's being deceived, even if he can't immediately figure out what the real story is behind the death of Yasuko's abusive former husband.

But the stiff control exerted by Yasuko's neighbor Ishigami, who's besotted with her, makes it hard to find a comfortable position as reader. With whom should we identify? Detective Yukawa is the most likeable, but his role is so much smaller that Yasuko's and Ishigami's that there's no easy position here. Nor do the voices of the characters differ among each other significantly -- and here again, I suspect the translation of failing us.

There are some great plot twists in store, and a surprise ending that performs the twist of a final line of a good haiku. But is it great fiction? I'm not convinced.

Nonetheless, it's worth taking a look at this new arrival. As we all access more translations of crime fiction from multiple cultures and languages, each book adds to our experience, and our ability to form considered opinions about how our global interactions can best proceed.


kokorako said...

Devil Devil sounds interesting, thanks for the thorough review, I'll definitely look this one up!
nicola baird (author of an enovel set in Solomon Islands COCONUT WIRELESS: a novel of love, life and gossip in South Pacific).

aokajiya said...

This is the translator of Devotion of Suspect X (and your neighbor in the NEK!) commenting to say thanks for the review. Higashino is an inspired mystery writer, and it's great to see word spreading about his work over here.
The issue of stiffness (also called "formality" by some) in the prose and dialogue are qualities of the original, though the choice to not alter this for the English edition was mine. Higashino has a very sparse style to begin with, and the only unguarded, informal, exchanges in this book are the few between the genius professor Yukawa and his detective buddy Kusanagi.
The question of how far to go in tweaking an author's style in the interest of localization is always a fascinating one, and rarely comes with an objectively correct answer. Incidentally, I've read the next volume in this series (featuring the same core characters in a different story), and there's much more banter of the kind we expect between our characters. There's another interesting twist here: a popular TV show based on Higashino's characters came out after Devotion, featuring Yukawa ("Professor Galileo") as its main character, and instead of portraying Kusanagi as his buddy, they inserted a female (junior) detective to replace the Kishitani character in the novel to lend some (subdued) sexual tension to the proceedings. These changes were adopted by Higashino himself in subsequent novels. Just guessing here, but maybe the TV show influenced his style, too?

Beth Kanell said...

Great to hear from you, Aokajiya; your comments on the translation choices persuade me to set aside time for a second reading of Devotion of Suspect X, to think about the author's and your style within the reading of the "mystery." I'll also be looking forward to the second in the series.