Villain: A Novel
by Shuichi Yoshida
Cover Artist: Photo: Francois Robert
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Pantheon Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780307378873
Date: 03 August 2010 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
A twenty-one-year-old Japanese woman, Yoshino Ishibashi, is found strangled on Mitsuse Pass, a lonely stretch of mountainous highway that is supposedly haunted. An insurance saleswoman by day and an internet prostitute by night, she becomes fodder for the journalism rags. Yoshino’s parents are shamed, especially her father, Yoshio; he seeks vengeance against one of the murder suspects, a wealthy, spoiled university student, Keigo Masuo. Another suspect, a poor construction worker, Yuishi Shimizu, goes on the lam with the latest girl, Mitsuyo Magome, whom he has met on the internet. Yuishi's grandparents, who raised him, are emotionally devastated; they fear he may be the villain who murdered Yoshino on Mitsuse Pass.
Shuichi Yoshida's Villain was a genuine surprise. Not only is it an intriguing crime drama set against the internet dating world of modern Japan, but it is a unique psychological study of how one tragedy can devastate entire families. The plights of several characters touched my heart so deeply that I wanted to cry. Villain is a successful blend of whodunit mystery, ill-fated romance, World War II history, and creepy horror. Long after having finished reading this novel, the reader will remain haunted by the question: Who are the real villains in this novel? The reader will discover there is definitely more than one villain; unfortunately, only one may face the gallows.
Villain is a character-driven novel. Don't expect a violent crime noir with bloodthirsty gangsters, a high body count and lots of gore. (Though I've never objected to this.) Villain is a provocative mystery with superb characterization. All the characters, both lead and supporting, come alive as though the author based them upon actual people. Just enough background detail is provided to intrigue the reader rather than bore them. For example, when Yuichi's grandmother, Fusae, was a child, she was forced to crawl upon the dirt to retrieve rationed potatoes; she compares this humiliating experience to the present-day thugs who force her to sign a contract for purchasing medicinal herbs.
Also, Villain provides a vast assortment of characters of all ages and from all economic and social backgrounds. The character I detested the most was the wealthy, selfish university student, Keigo Masuo. Handsome and popular, he treated girls as objects for manipulating and abusing. In a bar, surrounded by his buddies, he sordidly displayed the cell phone messages that Yoshino sent him before she died. I felt much sympathy for the reclusive Yuichi Shimizu who was raised by his grandparents after being abandoned by first his father and then his mother, Yoriko; she literally left him alone overnight at a ferryboat pier. However, Yuichi has always been kind to his grandparents and his elderly neighbors by running errands and taking them to the hospital. I didn't feel too much sympathy for the victim, Yoshino, who was promiscuous, worldly and egotistical.
I love my mysteries to have exotic locales. I experienced a slight case of culture shock while reading about Southern Japan. Everything seems very expensive. Meals at a decent restaurant cost thousands of Yen. Either the Japanese are more adulterous or its difficult to find privacy because love hotels that rent rooms by the hour are everywhere. Property must be scarce because bedrooms are measured in mats, e.g., a six-mat bedroom. It is definitely the custom for people to take off their shoes when entering a house and dine while sitting on mats (tatami) or cushions. Exotic foods include teppan goyoza, kaiten sushi, eel and squid. I found it unusual that coffee is served in cans. It is also strange that in December, the Japanese decorate trees with Christmas lights even though the major religions are Shinto and Buddhism. Young people are very similar throughout the world and I wasn't surprised to learn that Internet dating in Japan is as popular as it is in the United States.
If you desire an intriguing, emotional mystery with an exotic locale, then I highly recommend Villain. Its award-winning author, Shuichi Yoshida, was born in Nagasaki and has written nine novels. Villain is the first one to be translated into English and the translater, Philip Gabriel, is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona. It reads beautifully; I was only a little unsure of correctly pronouncing some of the Japanese names, locales and foods. Hopefully, more of Yoshida's novels will be translated into English. Interestingly enough, Villain is slated to be made into a Japanese film in 2010. Other mysteries with exotic locales that I highly recommend are: Adimchinma Ibe’s Treachery in the Yard (set in Nigeria), Daniëlle Hermans’s The Tulip Virus (set in Holland) and Douglas Corleone's One Man's Paradise (set in Hawaii).