Despite a fairly salacious premise — three young women connected by a prostitution ring die in mysterious circumstances — this thriller by popular Japanese writer Miyuki Miyabe reads more like a young adult mystery, a Stratemeyer Syndicate novel transposed to modern day Japan. It’s unfortunate because the book bobs along on some twisty waves, yet never manages to anchor itself successfully within an adult world. Partly, it’s the prose, never better than functional, and partly it’s the protagonist/sleuth Mamoru Kusaka, a noble teenaged boy, a Hardy minus his brother.
Mamoru gets involved in the mysterious killings when his uncle, a taxi driver in bustling Tokyo, accidentally runs down a young woman as she bolts across the street. Held by the police, the uncle swears that the girl jumped in front of his car, that she was running as though being chased, but no witnesses back up his statement, at least not initially. Mamoru begins to investigate, first casually, but soon he’s drawn into several intersecting worlds as he uncovers the truth.
There are plots and subplots: young women prey on lonely, successful men; subliminal advertising wreaks havoc on the mentally ill; hypnosis is used in a very devious way; teens victimize their own. To Miyabe’s credit, these varying threads, red herrings or not, form a thematic tapestry, the “devil’s whisper” of the title, the idea that humans can be, and often are, motivated by forces that their consciousness does not even begin to recognize. It’s a promising theme for a thriller, or for any book, but unfortunately, the contrivances of the plot, and the thin characterizations, undermine it.
The first problem is Mamoru, the teenage protagonist. Despite a complicated back-story involving a run-away criminal father and a mother who has died by a stroke, he comes across as a major blank, just a brave, goodhearted kid with none of the tics and complexities that make normal teenagers sometimes insufferable, but at least interesting. I’m not suggesting that Mamoru needed to be a Japanese Holden Caulfield for the book to work, but a few teenaged characteristics — maybe self-righteousness, angst, lust — would have helped the book immensely. Something that J.K. Rowling never forgot in the course of her Harry Potter books — you might have heard of them — was that her protagonists, for the most part, were teenagers, and despite being dropped in the midst of a wizards’ war, and a world imbued with almost every fantasy element ever imagined, her protagonists never stopped being teenagers, with all their petty hurts, painful crushes, acne, and growing pains.
The other major problem with The Devil’s Whisper is the prose. It’s hard to know who to blame here since the book is, of course, a translation, done by Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi. But English-speaking readers that can’t read Japanese don’t have a choice, and the translated release is a mess, peppered with poor metaphors, an overabundance of exclamation points, and tin-ear dialogue. So even if a reader is gliding harmlessly along on the juicy plot, it’s near impossible to not get waylaid by some of the more atrocious sentences. Here are a few that immediately made me forget I was reading a story, and reminded me instantly that I what I was reading was prose, poorly constructed:
This was the letter that raised the flag in Taizo’s heart from half mast until it was flying high again.
They were both beautiful with long hair and eyes shining with excitement. The night had just begun! It was written all over their faces.
Mamoru felt a dull sword of despair cutting through his heart.
If you aren’t particularly bothered by any of those sentences, if, for instance, you don’t actually picture writing on the girls’ faces — then you and I are different readers. Again, it’s a little hard to determine exactly where the blame lays — Miyabe or her translator — but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. If you are the type of reader that values plot over prose, or plot over decent dialogue, then maybe this is the book for you. For me, it was a slog.
I wouldn’t write off Miyabe completely — two million Japanese readers can’t be entirely wrong (well, maybe they can) — but I probably would check out the translator on the next Miyabe book I pick up. Or better yet, next time I need an intrepid teenager sleuth and a diabolical, implausible crime, I’ll go directly to the source material: my collection of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.