Villain will go down as a representative work that captures my literary palate. First of all, it’s a Japanese novel. Every element of the story coalesces into the type of Japanese crime noir thriller that I’ve grown to love ever since my first adventure with a Japanese novel, Natsuo Kirino’s Out. With that, Villain felt nostalgic to me. Shuichi Yoshida writes a dark story revolving around a murder in the eerie Mitsuse Pass. More than anything, it’s the setting that truly made this novel attractive to me. I could almost feel the chill in the air as Yoshida takes us down the treacherous mountain road—just the perfect atmosphere for a crime thriller.
Somewhere along Mitsuse Pass in the middle of the night in early December, a young insurance saleswoman was murdered. A suspect had already been arrested in suspicion of being the murderer. Although the crime and suspect are immediately presented, the exact trail of events is still left unclear. After all, a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. So the reader is left to unfurl the clues and piece together the chain of events, proving a hypothesis rather than solving a problem. Did the cops make the correct arrest? I feverishly turned the pages thinking that maybe the killer wasn’t actually the killer, keeping an eye out for any plot twist that might smack me right in the face and tell me that I’m wrong.
That makes Villain unlike your run-of-the-mill mystery novel that hunts down the killer. As a crime noir thriller, the mystery lies in the psychology behind the crime, a mystery driven by characters rather than plot. Going beyond the murder’s suspect and victim, Yoshida presents an intricate web of all possible characters connected to the crime in some accessory manner, each with their own stories and perspectives. The author brilliantly interweaves these perspectives in fleshing out the true nature of the murder and the characters of both the suspect and victim. The story is initially zoomed in at its heart before slowly zooming out to reveal the entire web, attaining a larger picture as the novel unfolds layer by layer. In its format, Villain may actually seem typical for a crime noir novel, nothing really new going on here. Yet it’s still a stunningly attractive piece for me, mainly due to my penchant for Japanese novels and fascination with dark crime thrillers. Or maybe it’s just that I’m allured by Mitsuse Pass in an uncanny way (note that I’ve never actually been there).
Looking at how Yoshida names the book’s five chapter titles, the reader is given a guide for tackling the novel’s central theme. Again, we go back to the crime at the story’s heart: A young woman is strangled to death by an assailant. We have one victim and one suspect. But who exactly is the villain here? What constitutes a villain is the thematic question that the story explores. That’s why back stories and peripheral characters were interwoven, each perspective taken into account. This compelling theme was what kept me thinking about the story even when I was busy with work and had to put the book down. At the same time, it’s what also slowed me down, making me want to relish the novel, to study each clue, each line, and the flow of events in order to thoroughly engage the theme. Who’s the villain? I kept asking myself even after I’ve long savored the last word.