A riddle, wrapped in an enigma, safely secured inside a maze… is how Japanese author Keigo Higashino’s translated novel Newcomer comes across at first glance; yet, perused a little carefully, the plot pans out like a delightful tapestry on the wall of crime fiction.
Set in Tokyo, in the era of family-run businesses, the narrative is simple, yet gripping. Shops in the Nihonbashi precinct, people busy with their daily chores; elements of Japanese culture are sprinkled all over. However, in the quaint environs, one fine day a woman’s body is found inside her house under mysterious circumstances.
In comes detective Kyoichiro Kaga, a ‘newcomer’ to the area. He casually begins his investigation by visiting the street around the scene of murder and looking for suspects among the seemingly happy, contended, people all around.
Gifted with a sharp, ‘curious’ mind, Kaga firmly believes that ‘even people without enemies sometimes get murdered’; just like the dead woman — Mineko Mitsui, a divorcee who worked as a translator. A loner, she preferred her own company as well as that of her flat; so, the possibility of her garnering enemies out on the street seem bleak at best. Despite that, the gruesome killing sends everyone in a tizzy; except the murderer, who remains hidden among familiar faces of the neighbourhood.
A la Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes, Kaga, who has a ‘razor-sharp mind and bloodhound nature’, goes from one clue to another with a keen eye, an even keener ear. What begins as a casual interaction with residents of the area is, in fact, a measured scheme of investigation that Kaga follows. Step by step, with unassuming nonchalance, he stitches the beads of evidence into a necklace that leads to the perpetrator of the crime.
Adept at his art, Kaga, ‘a one-time All-Japan kendo champion’, goes about his business with the calmness of a monk, albeit his senses are as eager as that of a famished lion. ‘The laid-back expression on his face hardly radiated professional competence’, but having been once a part of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Division, his credentials are unquestionable, despite the demotion that brings him to Nihonbashi.
Traditionally, murder mysteries move at a break-neck speed, but Newcomer is something akin to the good-old Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, where the thrill is in solving the mystery, not the velocity with which the criminal is captured.
Too many dialogues in the initial stages betray the reader’s interest; at times various chapters stand out as short stories in themselves, taking the focus away from the main plot, yet the author skilfully ties all threads together by the end. Higashino has also steered clear of unwarranted sermonising and digressing into the realm of metaphors, making the easy charm of detective Kaga triumph at all times.
Praise is well-earned by the translator, Giles Murray, too; he has dextrously converted Japanese words into English for the world to read and appreciate, without, perhaps, losing the original flavour the author most cherishes.