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Onyx reviews: Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino

Salvation of a Saint combines several crime and mystery tropes: it is a police procedural in the Ed McBain style, it features state-of-the-art C.S.I. forensics, it has a Sherlock Holmes-like puzzle solver, and it is a locked-room mystery in the tradition of John Dickinson Carr and Agatha Christie. The fact that it is set in Japan makes it slightly exotic, but does not impact the story greatly once readers become familiar with the names. The biggest problem for English readers is in determining a character's gender. Beyond that, with very few changes the book could be relocated anywhere on the planet. 

The murder victim, Yoshitaka Mashiba, was driven to procreate. For years, he has been auditioning potential candidates to produce children. He finally found one who insisted on getting married before they tried to get pregnant, but Yoshitaka made one stipulation. If his wife, Ayane Mita, a famous quilter, wasn't pregnant within a year, he would reconsider his decision to marry her.

As the novel opens, the year is up, Ayane isn't pregnant and Yoshitaka has announced his intention to divorce her. He has already found her replacement. Ayane packs her bags to visit her parents in far-off Sapporo. That weekend, Hiromi, Yoshitaka's lover—who happens to be Ayane's assistant—finds him dead in his house. His coffee has been poisoned.

The soon-to-be-ex wife is the logical suspect, and Higashino indicates early in the book that she had thoughts of killing her husband. The problem is, she has an ironclad alibi. Yoshitaka and Hiromi had previously made and drunk coffee that weekend, so the poison had to be added after that. But how? Hiromi is the only person known to have visited the house after Ayane left. It's not even clear where the poison, an arsenic derivative, came from or how it was delivered. Was it in the coffee grounds? The bottled water used to make the coffee? The kettle? The cup? Sophisticated forensic tests, including the use of the SPring 8 synchrotron to detect trace levels of the poison, are inconclusive.

The two detectives handling the case, Kusanagi (male) and Utsumi (female), have different approaches. Utsumi is more intuitive whereas Kusanagi is fact-oriented. Their boss is open-minded enough to listen to both of them. However, when they run into a wall, Utsumi turns to Manabu Yukawa, a university physicist who they call Professor Galileo, for assistance. Yukawa is a scientific Sherlock Holmes. He creates and tests hypotheses and isn't dismayed when one of his theories is disproved. He doesn't get personally involved in the case. To him it's a puzzle to be solved and the failure of a hypothesis represents progress. 

Kusanagi, on the other hand, does get personally involved. He doesn't exactly fall in love with the beautiful Ayane, their prime suspect, but he desperately wants to believe she's innocent, so he becomes somewhat biased. Together, the trio work as a team, although there's tension between Kusanagi and Yukawa, who were university classmates who had a falling out recently.

This isn't Thirteen at Dinner or And Then There Were None, with a host of potential candidates for the killer. Beyond Ayane and Hiromi, there is only the nebulous possibility of a random third party to be yanked out of the hat late in the game, which wouldn't be playing fair. The victim's past does come into play eventually, but Higashino is scrupulously true to the genre. He is judicious with the use of red herrings and nobody will accuse him of hiding important details. In retrospect, readers should appreciate how openly he displayed certain clues from the very beginning.

As Yukawa says, once he comes up with the solution to the enigma, it's nearly impossible. An essentially perfect murder. Of course, it has to be, or else it wouldn't be much of a puzzle. The resolution does stretch credibility to the breaking point—it requires a level of commitment that almost defies belief—but it is possible. Highly unlikely, but possible.

Keigo Higashino is one of Japan's best-selling novelists, with sixteen books to his credit over the past thirty years, along with many awards. The Devotion of Suspect X, his second book to be published in English, which also features Kusanagi and Yukawa, was nominated for an Edgar Award. More are to follow, hopefully with the same translator, Alexander O. Smith, who has done a stellar job.

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