First Thoughts: Journey Under the Midnight Sun

IN 1973, with the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East threatening worldwide oil prices, a pawnbroker is found murdered and robbed in an abandoned building in Osaka.

As Detective Sasagaki probes for clues, suspicion falls on several people, including the victim’s wife, an employee in the pawnshop, an almost destitute female customer that he’d been known to visit, and the customer’s lover. 

As days turn into weeks, nobody is caught for the crime, and eventually the police are forced to shelf the investigation, though Sasagaki keeps the case alive in his mind.

From here, two of the book’s main characters emerge: Ryo Kirihara, the only son of the murdered man; and Yukiho Fumiya, daughter of the customer who’d been in the frame for the crime until her death due to a gas leak. 

And it is these two, and their lives from adolescence through to adulthood, that the book follows in threads that, though separate and distinct, still can’t help but shadow one another.

As children, both seem odd and almost emotionless in their nature; Yukiho pretty but overly mature, hyper-worldly, Ryo disconnected and almost vacuous in terms of personality. In school, during her teens, Yukiho develops into a real beauty, captivating boys and men with her elegance. Even so, she is followed by discreet but persistent rumours about her past.

In time, she marries well and succeeds in business by opening an upmarket fashion boutique, though she seems — at least through those who become close to her — almost intimately connected with tragedy. 

Ryu, meanwhile, carves out a different but no less successful future, falling early on — and all too capably — into a life of crime, first as a pimp peddling schoolmates as gigolos to bored housewives, and then through a piracy racket involving computer games.

Keigo Higashino’s fifth novel to cross over into English is a truly epic crime thriller. Spanning two decades from the early 1970s, populated by a dense role-call of characters, intricately plotted and paced and with a genuinely stunning ending, Journey Under the Midnight Sun has to rank easily among the year’s elite offerings, both in the genre and also beyond.

Best known in the west as author of the critically acclaimed blockbuster, The Devotion of Suspect X, and labelled now as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’, a somewhat tiresome marketing gimmick that actually only serves to understate the breadth of the author’s immense storytelling talents and literary nous, Higashino has long enjoyed enormous success in his own country.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun — initially published in 1999, and just one of dozens that he has written over a 30-year career — has achieved homeland sales of more than two million copies and been triumphantly adaptated for the stage, television, and twice for the big screen.

So much about this novel impresses, from the construction of such a complex and intriguing plot, the employing of shifting narrative perspectives, the insightful psychological portrayals of the main players, and the vivid, well-rounded depictions of even minor characters, right through to the quite stunning ability of the author to sustain the mystery and tension over such a span of 20 years and more than 500 pages.

Ultimately, though, the real wonder of a novel like this is in the manipulation of detail. The prose style, at least in translation, is clean, plain-spoken and never less than subservient to the tale being spun, and yet every morsel of fact within these pages plays a part in holding the skeleton of this story upright and alive.

Very few writers in any genre display such narrative ambition, and very few are as compulsively readable.

Journey Under the Midnight Sun

Keigo Higashino (translated by Alexander O Smith, with Joseph Reeder)

Dalkey Archive, £13.99; Kindle, £8.53


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