Translated by Alexander O Smith with Joseph Reeder.
Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is the first novel I’ve read by Keigo Higashino – indeed, my first Japanese crime novel – and despite having a War & Peace experience with the unfamiliar names, I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading more novels by this author. Journey Under the Midnight Sun was first published in Japan in 2002 and now appears in a smooth translation by Alexander O. Smith with Joseph Reeder. It opens with the discovery of a corpse in an abandoned building in Osaka and at first seems to be a traditional police procedural, as we encounter the lead detective, Sasagaki, and observe the early stages of the investigation. Then at the end of Chapter 1, as the investigation comes to a halt with no solution, everything changes. The next few chapters focus on Yukiho, daughter of one of the possible suspects, as she moves from elementary school in a poor run-down part of Osaka to new home and high school, moving a little up the social ladder, to college and a new life. For much of the remainder of the novel, Yuhiko is the focus, even when she isn’t actually present. The lives of all the characters seem to be touched by her, often in quite tangential, threatening or mysterious ways.
Thus, a murder mystery is introduced then almost forgotten, while a sequence of strange and dark events bubbles under the surface of a narrative about new then recurring characters.
The detective and the original crime don’t reappear for 270 pages but hints and connections begin to build into a hazy picture. The plotting is ingenious and unusual in that we aren’t caught up with the original mystery, as in a whodunnit, but instead held by new characters and situations. When the detective does re-appear he sidles into the lives of the characters in the same way that they were introduced and re-introduced. It emerges that he is still preoccupied with the initial crime and is pursuing hunches as well as slight clues in order to get a resolution. This is in fact what the reader has been doing for around 200 pages of the novel since Sasagaki was left behind after Chapter 1. One of the characters speaks of his life as being lived “under a midnight sun” and the strangeness of that phrase chimes with my reading experience – there’s a flatness to the narrative voice but underneath it is mystery, darkness, menace. It’s a slow burner: the steadily-moving plot introduces new situations, periodically returning to characters from the early section, but not resolving the puzzle until the very last pages (of a long novel). Each chapter is followed by a time interval and the introduction of new characters, the original crime is alluded to, overlaid with events which may or may not be connected. We slowly realise that behind some of the key events there seem to be two of the young, lower-class characters that we encountered early on.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this novel so much was its Japanese setting, established in allusions and contextual detail rather than long descriptive passages. Indeed, it’s worth reading just to get a picture of an era in which post-war Japan was transformed in the rapid social and technological change after the 1960s. It covers almost 20 years from the initial crime in 1973 to its resolution, moving between a run-down Osaka to the Tokyo of the economic miracle almost up to the point of the economic crash of 1990. (The plot mirrors this rise and fall.) I imagine that the way in which Higashino takes us through the 1970s and 80s must be intriguing for Japanese readers too. He presents a generation growing up and leaving behind traditional Japanese customs, becoming more Americanised. They drink coffee, smoke light cigarettes, watch baseball, eat in French restaurants, consume American films and TV, obsess about computer games and hi-tech gadgets. The plot is actually tied in to changes in the economy like the rise of computing technologies, electronics and pharmaceuticals, high-end boutiques, and economic bubbles.
Alongside the detailed picture of a changing society the novel gives us intimate vignettes of the characters, at home and at work, including their feelings and relationships. It’s quite an achievement to have a broad social picture emerging from the details of multiple characters’ everyday lives. Even the characters who – we gradually realise – are implicated in the earlier crime, and continue to act in criminal and often brutal ways, remain interesting and even sympathetic. The portrait of everyday life ranges from the poorest who are near to starvation, unable to pay rent to the salarymen and the business world, and the very rich. I found the representation of women especially interesting. Some of the families have only one parent; female characters often live alone or with difficult partners. Traditional attitudes to gender roles, work and marriage are explored – women in particular seem to be emerging from some of the traditional constraints and expectations. There seems to be more social as well as gender mobility – at least in this young, metropolitan milieu. An intriguing picture, then, of Japanese society in the later 20th century along with mystery and tight plotting with a satisfying resolution that makes human as well as narrative sense.