BOOK REVIEW: Mystery novel unveils the power to change another’s life

The Devil’s Whisper

By Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Stuhr Iwabuchi

(Kondansha: New York, 2010, 264 pp., $11.95, paperback)

Miyabe does it again — the elegantly crafted, more-than-just-mystery novel in “The Devil’s Whisper” keeps you hooked not just on the plot, but on the characters, their guilty consciences, and the moral quandaries and choices that bind us all together.

The story revolves around 16-year-old Mamoru, a boy who has come of age in the midst of ostracism and rejection by all of society due to his father’s apparent embezzling of city funds and subsequent mysterious disappearance. When his mother dies, Mamoru is forced to live with a long-lost aunt and her family; they represent a fun and realistic mix of personalities and pain, and love him nonetheless. However, when his newfound uncle, a taxi driver, is wrongfully accused of running a red light and killing a pretty young girl, his determination to prove him innocent throws him into a deep pool of intrigue.

As it turns out, this young girl’s death is no mystery — it is inevitably linked to the deaths of three other girls who committed suicide under seemingly normal conditions. They all seem to have willingly jumped off of buildings, darted in front of trains or into the street. Determined to clear his uncle’s name, Mamoru uses lockpicking skills that he learned from a man who took him in when the rest of society shunned him. He discovers the girl’s involvement in a particularly traumatic men’s escort service in which they specifically target lonely men in order to extort money and gifts, but inevitably result in a trail of victims scarred or driven to despair and suicide because of their betrayal.

Mamoru finds himself more deeply involved than he realized when he contacts people involved with the service who subsequently die mysteriously, and then the instigator of all these deaths contacts him, and reveals his “powers.” Mamoru takes it upon himself to protect both the ones he loves and the other people whose lives are threatened. But through the haze of fear, guilt, shame and his own past, he must learn to overcome the hatred that threatens to turn him into a replica of this same murderer.

As in many of Miyabe’s other titles, she is a master of narrating people’s obsessions, and fears that drive us to believe in our convictions, and to justify our actions. How do we use the gifts that we have? How do we use our knowledge and power to influence others, and with what consequence? The escort girls and their charm, the murderer’s powers, the influence of a safe position in family, work or society, an old man’s wisdom, Mamoru’s own acuity and lock picking abilities — in “The Devil’s Whisper,” Miyabe reveals that each of us have gifts and responsibilities with the power to change the course of another’s life.

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