Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).
Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.
Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.
Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.
Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.
Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.
When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.
Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.
Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.
The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.
In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.
Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.
As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.
In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.
Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.
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Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at ecmreviews.com.