Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
I'm not a huge fan of the run-of-the-mill true crime genre with all of the gory details hashed out for reader titillation. To me it's the stuff of tabloids, sleazy, sordid, and quick-to-press exploitation, designed to appeal to a voyeuristic audience. So when I come across a journalist whose writing isn't motivated by the sensational, or who has taken years to research his subject before publishing, I'm generally not disappointed.
Such is the case with People Who Eat Darkness, a very intelligently-written book that moves far afield of the usual mish-mash of true crime. The book is about the disappearance of a young woman, Lucie Blackman, a young woman from the UK who worked Tokyo in a small club as a hostess, left on a drive to the seaside with a man, and was never seen alive again. While this description sounds like it could be fodder for a true-crime writer, there is so much more to this book than any average crime writer would even attempt. As Parry leads the reader through this compelling story, you begin to see that he's forming an intensely cogent account not just of an horrific crime, but an exploration of cultures within a culture, families, Japan's legal and justice system, its history, and the conflicts that arose because of this case. Although its page count nearly reaches the 500 mark, it moves very quickly, and it's another one of those books I stayed up to read because I couldn't put it down.
Richard Lloyd Parry, the author of People Who Eat Darkness, was on the scene as this story slowly unfolded over the course of several long years. As he notes about this case,
"The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years. ... Lucie's story brought me into contact with aspects of human experience tht I had never glimpsed before. It was like the key to a trapdoor in a familiar room, a trapdoor concealing secrets -- frightening, violent, monstrous existences to which I had been oblivious."Lucie Blackman had been working as a flight attendant for British Airways to help pay off her debt, but when her longtime friend Louise told her about a way that she could make much more money as a bar hostess in Tokyo, Lucy quit her job and went out to Japan. She worked in a small bar in Tokyo's Rappongi district, part of the "water trade" (mizu shōbai) that ran the gamut from hostesses paid to keep men happy while they drank at a bar to prostitution. Part of Lucie's job was to keep the customer coming back, and one method of doing this was the dohan, or "date," where the girls would go out with their customer, usually for dinner, then make sure the man returned to the club for more drinking. The hostesses would get a commission, and could be in danger of losing their jobs without x-amount of dohan outside of their regular job. It's not prostitution, but more like being an escort. It was on one such "date" that Lucie disappeared, only a couple of months after arriving in Japan. She already had plans for the Saturday evening of her disappearance, but she'd phoned Louise to let her know she was driving to the seaside and that she'd be back on time. When Lucie didn't return, Louise started to worry, and after failing to find out anything about Lucie's whereabouts, went to the local police station on Monday. Going there was risky -- both Louise and Lucie had been working illegally, coming to Japan on tourist visas. The police weren't interested, so Louise contacted the vice-consul who also called the police station, thinking that Lucie may have been abducted. Then the weirdness began: Louise received a call saying that Lucie had decided to make a "life-changing decision" and join a religious cult. Louise notified Lucie's mother, who notified her ex-husband Tim, who flew to Japan and helped to change the course of the non-existent investigation. What was eventually uncovered was beyond imagination -- especially when the police had already dismissed the claims of other women who came close to meeting the same fate as Lucie.
In writing this book, Parry notes that he hoped to restore Lucie's "status as a normal person, a woman complex and lovable in her ordinariness, with a life before death," and he does this very aptly. However, before the book is over he's also examined Japanese culture, its police, its legal system and even the life of Lucie's killer. Another part of his book that really stands out is how Lucie's killer, Joji Obara, might have been apprehended years earlier, when Lucie was thirteen, if the police had not been so quickly willing to categorize victims by type -- as he states, "an institutional inability to think other than in clichés." He also goes into the lives of Lucie's family and how each family member tried to cope with the aftermath of Lucie's disappearance, the investigation, the trial and ultimately the loss of their beloved daughter and sister.
Obviously there's way more to this book than what I can capture in a few paragraphs, but the long and short of it is that it's one of the most compelling, well-written and intelligent true accounts I've read in a very long time. The author has gone above and beyond in terms of balance, and it's obvious how much this case and the people involved have haunted him. The story itself may seem beyond belief, but it's one of the most frightening things I've read in a long while, the more so because it's true. And that brings me to a final thought: while scrutinizing reader reviews, I came across one on goodreads that literally made me do a double take:
"And why would you read this endless, rambling, researched-to-the-point-of-exhaustion book when you can just watch the entire story on Dateline on YouTube and be done with it in an hour?"
While I could reply with a comment that would say something sarcastic about why read anything at all if it's been televised, Hollywoodized, or put on YouTube, the reality is that this account would not have been nearly as thorough or as compelling without the cultural, historical and sociological facets the author brings into the book. If this isn't your thing, well, you're always free to stick to the mass-market output. If you want something intelligently written, balanced and just plain excellent, then this book is well worth your while.