Japanese author Keigo Higashino has produced a classically-styled, some might say old fashioned, detective novel in Malice. While the rest of the world is going for serial killer thrillers and flawed antiheros, Higashino has produced a novel that harks back to the detective work of an earlier age. This is not a criticism. Malice is still a taut, twisting match of wits between detective and killer.
Kunihiko Hinada, a famous novelist, and his new wife are preparing to move to Canada. Nonoguchi, one of his oldest friends, comes to visit him on the day before they are due to leave. During the visit he learns that Hinada has made some enemies - a neighbour and the sister of one of their schoolmates who was the subject of one of his recent novels. Later that night Nonoguchi and Hinada's wife find Hinada dead, killed in his office, the door locked and all the lights off. The first part of the novel is an account of that day written by Nonoguchi, himself an aspiring novelist.
The murder case is taken by Inspector Kaga, coincidentally also an old teaching colleague of Nonoguchi. On reading Nonoguchi's statement Kaga begins to have doubts about the events. He is intrigued by the locked room mystery and immediately begins to dig deeper. The rest of the novel see-saws between Kaga's investigation and Nonoguchi's shifting narration. Each switch in narrator provides a different view of the events leading up to the night of the murder and the characters involved.
In some interesting ways Malice is a historical crime novel. Set way back in 1996, the set-up partially relies on the specific technology of the time - fax machines, word processors and basic mobile phones – to drive the plot. But it really focuses on that most basic of technologies, writing. The victim is a novelist, Nonoguchi is also a writer (and is writing some of the narrative), and the investigation focuses on how they write and what they write about. Higanshino examines the nature of the publishing industry, how some books become bestsellers and what effect that has on the author.
Novels of this type condition the reader to question the narrative. Rather than a slow build-up of clues, each chapter falsifies the assumptions of the previous chapter. In this type of narrative, part of the pleasure comes in the expectation of the next twist, with the reader trying to work out how many different ways the same set of events can be viewed and how their perceptions of character can be manipulated. Even the chapter names of Malice highlight this build up, with the final chapter title being 'Truth'.
Malice is a carefully constructed, character-focussed whodunit and then whydunit, but it is more than just a set of tricky reverses. Higashino uses his scenario and characters to explore the concept of “malice”, delving into issues of bullying, the way the media is used to manipulate perception and the corrosive nature of fame. This makes Malice the complete package – a crime novel that has both a twisting narrative and fascinating themes.