book: Under the Midnight Sun (1999; trans 2015 Alexander O. Smith, Joseph Reeder) by Keigo Higashino

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In Osaka in the early 1970s, a pawnbroker is found savagely murdered in an abandoned building. The crime fascinates Detective Sasagaki, but when, over the next year, the two major suspects die — one in a traffic accident, the other in what everyone thinks is suicide although murder and misadventure are both possibilities too — the investigation is wound down. Still, Sasagaki can’t get the case out of his mind. He’s haunted by his recollections of the two children involved: Ryo, son of the murdered pawnbroker, and Yukiho, daughter of the woman who may or may not have committed suicide and may or may not have been the pawnbroker’s mistress.*

For the most part episodically, Under the Midnight Sun (I much prefer the UK title, Journey under the Midnight Sun) follows the fates of those around Yukiho and Ryo as the two lead their ostensibly separate lives during the next twenty years or so. Sasagaki makes occasional appearances on the periphery; we’re aware that he hasn’t abandoned the investigation, but that’s about it. Instead the focus is on the stories of a sea of secondary characters, some involved with Yukiho and/or Ryo in the short term, some whose lives touch those of the enigmatic pair over many years.

This episodic structure means that, for about the first two-thirds of the novel, each new chapter has the feel of a separate albeit sequentially linked tale. Only in the last few chapters does everything coalesce to form a single narrative, with Sasagaki, and his investigation of the by now decades old mystery, returning to center stage.

This description might make the novel sound unduly cluttered, but I found the constant changes of perspective, and the jumps forward in time, invigorating: it all made for compulsive reading. Yes, from time to time I could certainly have done with an old-fashioned Dramatis Personae list to help me keep track of the characters (Yukiho, Yaeko and Yuko, for example, may all seem distinctive names to a Japanese reader, like Jeffrey, Jill and Jack do to an English one, but for simple-brained moi . . .), yet such concerns slowed my progress hardly at all.

Adding to the interest for me was the way that each new episode of the narrative brought with it cultural changes, sometimes in terms of books or movies or trending pop music but often relating to progress in information technology, particularly computers. We go from data cassettes (remember those?) through 5¼in floppy disks (remember those?) to hacking, a near-incomprehensible concept to most of the characters even as some are familiar with the new world IT is opening up.

This is a fairly long book, yet I found myself reading it very quickly, racing through the pages as I became involved in all the characters’ lives. As I read I found myself thinking that in an odd way this was a suitable companion piece to another long novel I enjoyed recently, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Labyrinth of the Spirits: both have the same sprawl of characters and the same temporal scope, although in this latter respect Zafon’s structure is far less linear. And both novels can be quite ruthless toward those characters: just because the author has persuaded you to invest your emotion in someone doesn’t necessarily mean that particular individual is going to make it to the finish line. A difference is that Zafon’s characters tend to be either good or evil; Higashino’s are more nuanced, so that, no matter how evilly some of them behave, we can still find room for compassion: they’re products of what has been done to them.

I see there are a couple of translated Higashino novels that I haven’t yet read; I must remedy this sometime soon. I enjoyed his The Devotion of Suspect X a lot and I very, very much liked his more GAD-style Malice, but Journey under the Midnight Sun seems almost a different ball game: very impressive in its scope and ambition, and utterly gripping, with a central character — Yukiho — who entirely captivated me.

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* Now there‘s a title for your next bestselling novel! And the cover should show the back of a young woman as she walks away from us, natch.

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13 thoughts on “book: Under the Midnight Sun (1999; trans 2015 Alexander O. Smith, Joseph Reeder) by Keigo Higashino

  1. I think the internet may have eaten my previous comment on this, so I’ll try again…

    I’ve seen a lot of praise for this author’s work (Suspect X in particular), but this one is new to me. It sounds very involving and compelling – and I like the idea behind the structural approach you’ve mentioned above.

    On another note, I’m about halfway through March Violets, and the clunky similes keep on coming. A shame really as the Berlin setting and political backdrop are very interesting. I suspect it will divide opinion within my book group…

    • I think the internet may have eaten my previous comment on this

      It did indeed.

      Marina Sofia read this one not so many months ago, as I was reminded when I went to post my notes on Goodreads, and she liked it a great deal as well — in fact, it have been her rave that inspired me to put it on my library to-be-ordered list.

      As for the Philip Kerr, it was only in the first volume that the labored pseudo-Chandleresque similes really got to me. Kerr toned them down in vols #2 and #3, and presumably the remainder of the series. Perhaps some of the reviewers of March Violets criticized the book on this ground when it first came out, and he took the hint.

      • That’s certainly some positive endorsement for the Higashino. I’ll bear it in mind.

        Thanks, too, for your views on the later books in the Kerr series. I will definitely throw that into the book group discussion when we meet next week. The guy who chose it likes a continuing series, so he may well bite on the sequels.

        • I was awfully glad I’d bought the Penguin omnibus of the first three, because if I’d read just Violets I doubt I’d have revisited the series. As it was, I really quite liked the next two volumes so got a bit more open-minded about reading more of them.

  2. Higashino, to employ the American idiom, bats about a 0.65 with me after two books: the first half and solution of Salvation of a Saint are glorious, and I enjoyed the creativity (and it must be said, very readable tranlsation) of Devotion of Suspect X — and, dude, what an ending. I felt he came up a bit short on plot in both cases, and that there were chunks of both that could have been edited out without affecting anything, but I overall like what I’ve seen so far.

    I’d probably wait for another impossibility of quasi-impossibility before taking him on again, though you do make Malice sound good in your review.

    • Of the three Higashinos I’ve read, Malice is the one that I’d (forgive the presumption!) guess might the one most in accordance with your taste. It’s far more a traditional puzzle mystery.

      I’m now quite keen to lay hands on the other two that have been translated in his series that began with Devotion of Suspect X. Maybe I’ll read one as a Christmas treat, or something.

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