Miyuki Miyabe - The Devil's Whisper
Mystery writers have never shied away from the preposterous. Magic, demons, occult figures, returned dead – they've all made appearances, with greater or lesser success, and they will continue to do so. Coincidences, it goes without saying, form part of the preposterous, and it is inevitable that the protagonist will unravel the clues available following a series of remarkably fortuitous events. Tropes, then, are the bedrock of the mystery genre, and it is fair to say that Miyuki Miyabe's novel, The Devil's Whisper, is content to build her story from these foundations, rather than rock them.
The Devil's Whisper begins with a confusion of perspectives, shifting rapidly from characters we hardly know, to impersonal news reports, and finally to a suitably ominous, non-gender or -role specific character who we know, surely and absolutely, has a part to play in whatever it is that is in the process of transpiring. Solidity comes from Mamoru, the plucky young protagonist who has a history involving a shady father, a deceased mother, and a curious older man who taught him how to pick locks. Mystery and intrigue comes from the death of three beautiful young women and the virtually inevitable death of the fourth, Kazuko Takagi. There are sinister phone calls, sordid (though cleanly told) sexual carryings on, and the body count is rather high. Mamoru, still in high school, zips about with admirable speed, talking to people right before they are murdered, stumbling upon the perfect clue at the perfect time, and generally being the perfect detective, even before he is aware there's anything worth being a detective for.
That's the nuts and bolts of the story. Essentially, the mystery of this story is generic, and the murders are where and what they should be. There is a commendable economy of characters, which also means, of course, that there are some who are not all that they seem. Miyabe, an exceptionally successful and prolific writer of thrillers and crime fiction in Japan, understands the tools of her craft, and uses them well. And they are tools, the well worn hammers, screws and spanners of the genre. Miyabe, instead of inventing strange new implements to create wonders never seen, instead turns to the stalwarts of her genre.
The question becomes, then – how well does she use these tools? To extend the metaphor, carpenters of all skill levels must use the same basic tools to create their furniture, but in the hands of a master a masterpiece is created, and in the hands of a novice only kindling. Miyabe, though this is an early work, approaches the surety and confidence of a master craftsman.
Mamoru is suitably sympathetic and understandably motivated to unravel the increasingly bizarre mystery behind the girls and their suicides – or is it murder? Of course it is murder, otherwise there wouldn't be a story. Miyabe knows the reader knows this, even if Mamoru, at first, does not. The seeds of murder and mystery are planted early and well, such as when Mamoru manages to hunt down a copy of an elusive magazine, Information Channel.
”Did you find what you were looking for?” Akemi turned to look at him.
Mamoru nodded. “Do you know who wrote this article?”
He spread out a copy of the second issue of Information Channel. There was a photo of the upper bodies of four women. All of them beautiful. Their skin and hair shone even through the grainy photos. They were laughing and chatting together.
The second woman from the left was Yoko Sugano; Mamoru recognised her from the photos he had found in her apartment. Below the picture was a large headline: 'These high-earners use every sexy trick in the book to get what they want. Lovers-for-hire talk about their real feelings.'
Below that were quotes from the women. The first one read, 'We're modern prostitutes: you pay us to fall in love with you.'
In these few paragraphs Miyabe, who knows we know that Yoko Sugano is dead from not suicide but murder, has inserted further mysteries, this time of a sexual and somewhat perverse nature. A reader's curiosity is, naturally, piqued. A great many sections of the novel plays out like this, which is to say that a scene will carry on as normal, and then end with a satisfying hook that incites the desire for further reading.
The technique of the writing is not particularly overblown, though Miyabe sometimes reaches too far when she tries to express the emotions of one character for another. In these situations the text is reduced to such clumsy terms as “his heart sank” or “Hashimoto's breathing was ragged.” or something equally awkward. She appears unable to properly probe the emotions a character must, surely, be feeling in a situation involving murder, double-crossing, hypnotism and subliminal messages, and too often the characters end up exclaiming to one another rather than talking or thinking things through.
A weakness and a strength of the novel lies in its use of multiple perspectives. They occur mostly at the start and end of the novel, and are used to progress the plot in ways that the primary protagonist could not. This, however, is perhaps an indication that the story, or the method for telling it, is an unsteady frame upon which to hang its plot. In effect this is Mamoru's tale, and we learn things as he does, but occasionally we do not and here the story shows its weak points. Mamoru should – and could, we suspect, if the author would let him – shoulder the entire burden of the plot, but that isn't how it turns out. However, it should be noted that the magazine and newspaper snippets, in particular, are effective tools (that word again!) for conveying extra-character information. And, just as importantly, they serve to build up the profile of Miyabe's other great character, Tokyo itself.
The last half of the novel veers off into the wilderness, with results that are equally bizarre and entertaining. Mysticism in the form of an exceptionally talented hypnotist comes into play, and added to that is the lengthy and more than tangentially related subplot involving Mamoru's place of work, Laurel, a large department store which seems to be, unwittingly perhaps (or perhaps not) involved in subliminal messages both fair and foul. Miyabe wisely uses these odd excursions as methods to further probe the personality and integrity of her main character, rather than, as in the work of, say, Haruki Murakami, an excuse to fall into a surreal fantasy land. That said, those without a taste for the strange will find it all a bit too weird, but the (presumably) exotic location of Japan will no doubt allay most fears. A master hypnotist in an ordinary Western city? Preposterous. The same hypnotist hard at work in Tokyo? Sure, I can believe that. At least, that is how I assume the standard reaction will play out. And why not? Miyabe herself uses the mysticism of ancient Japanese wisdom as a device to explain away the hypnotists powers. So be it. In the context of the story she stretches, to the limit, the plausibility of the world she has created, but the bubble refuses to burst and thus it remains entertaining rather than silly.
Miyabe's The Devil's Whisper is an interesting murder thriller that is not without its weaknesses, but these are far outweighed by the risks Miyabe takes. The bedrock of the story is solid, generic and, it must be admitted, somewhat bland. No character truly rises above the muck of cliché, and the interesting aspects of the girl's and their sordid lives are hinted at, but never properly explored. Whether this is a failing of the author's talent, or simply an oversight, is difficult to tell, but the novels suffers from its lack. What does work, surprisingly, is the exotic and the ridiculous, and Mamoru's final moral decision, which directly concludes the primary plot and neatly involves the secondary stories, ties everything in a rather neat bow. Miyabe's novel becomes more flawed the deeper it is analysed, but there is something charmingly entertaining about it as well. Certainly recommended for those interested in the genre, and more importantly, those willing to take a risk or two.
Titles by Miyabe also under review:
---The Sleeping Dragon
Other titles from Kodansha International under review.