By Shuichi Yoshida (New York: Pantheon, 2010, 295 pp., $25.95, paperback)
At first glance, Yoshida’s story of a murder mystery seems like an open-and-shut case. The story sounds predictable and sometimes even clichéd. The “who dunnit?” feel pours over the pages and lets the reader wait for the inevitable twist end; however, the twists come earlier on than expected, and “Villain” picks up where the routine degrades and the plot thickens even despite the case of the murder is solved.
Yoshida crafts a story set in Kyushu, the southern-most main island in Japan’s archipelago. The setting is described not in the traditional sense of famous temples and historical note, but out of highways and train stations, which serve as landmarks to the characters and the mystery. Yoshino, a young insurance salesperson, works out of Tenjin, and is murdered on a cold mountain pass. The characters surrounding the murder constantly note where they live and how they travel throughout the story, such as Yuichi. Yuichi drives around Kyushu in his tuned car, his one treasured possession. The book notes his routes as he travels around Kyushu to visit Yoshino and his other friends and how he runs away when he becomes the primary suspect for the murder.
The story takes place at destinations or en route to them. The moment characters realize there is nowhere further to go, they take action. The story’s buildup until then is a trial of torment for all the characters, which seems more like a schadenfreude meat grinder than reasonable character development. No one is spared. Yuichi’s grandmother must care for her ailing husband and face her grandson’s possible crimes, all while being extorted by the local mob. Yoshino’s co-workers and family must come to terms with Yoshino’s death, and cope with Japan’s sensationalist media, all while dealing with their own inner demons.
While the story centers around a murder, most of “Villain” takes place within the character testimonies of peripheral or supporting characters. Their stories focus more on personal demons which become unraveled through the murder, rather than their personal stake in the murder story itself.
The depiction of tormented characters is key to the story. All of the characters have a skeleton or two in their closet, and the ones that do not are found to be despicable villains in their own right. A reader’s faith in humanity might be tested in reading the terrible ordeal the characters must go through. Their eventual triumph comes, but Yoshida holds it off till the very last pages of the book. Thus, this story is not for the weary heart.
The story, however captivating, is not without flaws. Characters and sub characters get introduced constantly and disappear as if they were inconsequential, especially toward the end of the book. There is a dearth in prominence for some characters, while seemingly unconcerned characters are given the spotlight to tell their inner woes. In such cases, it almost appears that some characters come into play solely to slap a character in the face and quickly recede into the background, such as a prostitute Yuichi used to frequent, or a school teacher Yoshino used to date. Their roles as character witnesses, while telling, seem pointless otherwise.
All in all, “Villain” is a good read. The story is a mystery, not just over the murder, but a mystery of the psyche.