I discovered Agatha Christie pretty late in life. My childhood was full of Enid Blytons, and teen years dedicated to a couple of Nancy Drews and then reading Sidney Sheldon in hiding. My first grown-up book was Jeffrey Archer’s As the Crow Flies, gifted by a cousin sister at 16. As I went to college and studied literature, I delved into the world of Rabindranath Tagore, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ismat Chugtai, Christina Rosetti, Robert Browning, Vijay Tendulkar and Christopher Marlowe, among others. Becoming a journalist introduced me to the joys of non-fiction and history, and I became a big fan of MJ Akbar and William Dalrymple.
I read my first Agatha Christie the summer I turned 24. It was a book called Death on the Nile, a tale about love and what humans can do for it. Simon meets his lover Jacqueline’s best friend Linnet, who is a rich heiress. Simon leaves Jacqueline and marries Linnet. Jacqueline, wrought with jealousy, follows them around like a crazed ex-lover. Linnet is found dead on a cruise with a bullet in her head. Detective Hercule Poirot is summoned. It was Simon who killed Linnet, it turns out, with Jacqueline helping him plot to kill her best friend. It was all an act. The tragedy: Jacqueline kills both herself and Simon when the crime is revealed. Three people dead, thanks to that thing we call love. I was hooked.
There was no looking back. I read one Agatha Christie novel after another. In And Then There Were None, ten strangers die one after another on an island, hunted by a killer who only relies on the fact that the ten have secrets they are all ashamed of. In Murder on the Orient Express, a dozen people come together to kill a man who affected all their lives with one heinous act. In Appointment with Death, a family is relieved when a sadistic matriarch is killed by a woman who she had once ridiculed. Christie had her own brand of mystery—one that relied heavily on human emotions, reactions and counteractions. Humans were creatures that could be led to murder instigated by emotions of love, lust, envy, greed or wrath. Christie knew the Devil’s tools to perfection and used them well. Once I had gone through all of her 80 detective novels, I started searching for the next best thing.
It has been an uphill task. Mystery novels have changed their modus operandi. For one, crime fiction and mystery have become synonymous, with serial killer tomes at the head of the list. So even though I absolutely love The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it was still a story about incest, religious fanaticism and sex with an angle that eventually leads us to a serial killer. The following two books of the series went deeper into the big bad world of Sweden’s politics and the underworld.
Then there are the books which are told from the perspective of an ageing, alcoholic, often violent and mentally disturbed private investigator or detective. In Jo Nesbo’s Snowman, dysfunctional Detective Harry Hole is as disturbed as the serial killer he is after. I mean even Poirot and Miss Marple were kooks, but they didn’t need copious amounts of alcohol to sleep. When I read Booklist.com’s list of top mystery books of 2011, I was disturbed by the lack of an Agatha Christie kind of mystery. It’s topped by The Anniversary Man by RJ Ellory, all about a detective’s search for a serial killer who is imitating the crimes of history’s worst murderers; it’s followed lower down the list by Gone by Mo Hyder, again about a cop looking into the disappearance of an 11-year-old, and Spiral by Paul McEuen where the mystery hunters chance upon the ‘most devastating terrorist attack in human history’.
But all comes to those who wait. A few weeks ago, as I scoured a bookshop for the hundredth time for an old-school mystery, I felt drawn to Japanese author’s Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X. Fifty pages in, and I was in heaven. It was as if Christie’s departed soul had somehow transplanted itself in the pages of this novel. I was reminded of Death on the Nile all over again. The Devotion of Suspect X is all about what one can do for love—even if it’s unrequited and if your object of affection sees you as a spot on the wall that s/he won’t even bother to wipe off. It’s about friendship and how a good friend would never let you bear the brunt of someone else’s crime. It’s about selfishness—when humans take as much as they want but balk if they have to return the favour. It’s about doing what’s right, even if it hurts. It is about pure mystery—with the original Christie commandments.
Math teacher Tetsuya Ishigami is in love with his neighbour Yasuko Hanaoka, who is being stalked by her ex-lover. Yasuka and her daughter, Misato Hanaoka, kill the ex-lover after an altercation. Ishigami, the neighbour they have never bothered getting to know, guesses that they are the murderers, and tells them to leave the ‘covering up the crime’ bit to him. He plots their alibi and tells them to pretend that it never happened.
Only hitch: Ishigami’s old friend, Manabu Yukawa, an eccentric physicist who is helping the detective on the case, stumbles upon Ishigami’s scheme. Slowly, he decodes the ingenious way Ishigami went about covering their tracks. He knows Ishigami is in love and doesn’t want Yasuko to suffer. Someone once said that sacrifice is the biggest form of love. Ishigami sacrifices all, but the twist in the end nullifies his sacrifice. His friend, much like Poirot in character (who sometimes lets criminals decide their own punishment), feels his pain, but believes in karma. Let the criminal bear the punishment, not the lover.
No wonder the book’s such a hit in Japan. It has won Higashino the 134th Naoki Prize, which is highly respected, and also the 6th Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the mystery novels category in Japan. Higashino is also president of Mystery Writers of Japan, a well-regarded club. I am now looking forward to reading his other books, especially Detective Galileo series, where we meet Professor Yukawa again, with his sidekick, the rookie cop Kaoru Utsumi (much like Captain Hastings).
Higashino took me back to a simpler world of mystery novels—where everyday feelings could end up in a bloody mess. I thank him. Till the time there are more writers like him, I will re-read my 80 Agatha Christies because I end up interpreting them differently each time round. And because they tell us what we knew all along—there is a murderer inside all of us. It’s how we manage to keep him in. As Christie writes in And Then There Were None, ‘And all of them, suddenly, looked less like human beings. They were reverted to more bestial types.’