By Richard Lloyd Parry
Available now from FSG Originals (Macmillan)
I infrequently read nonfiction. This is due less to a lack of interest in the form than an overriding interest in fiction. But I thought it would be a nice change of pace during my marathon of reading for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. In the end, I finished a little over half of the book before my deadline.
So what sparked my interest in PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS, the true crime account of the disappearance of British Lucie Blackman in Tokyo during the summer of 2000? The back blurb promised cultural and psychological insight on the level of Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD. It touched on one of my academic interests, East Asian culture, and one of my favorite books.
The comparison to IN COLD BLOOD on the back does PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS no favors. Richard Lloyd Parry's lengthy and detailed account of the Lucie case lacks the transgressive power of Capote's masterpiece. Capote offered no pretense of objectivity, instead showing great feeling for a man who committed a brutal multiple murder. Parry's book is drier and attempts for an objective tone, but there is never a sense that he sees shades of grey in Joji Obara. There is no strange, compelling beauty. There is only a sad, friendless, bizarre man who committed at least nine and possibly hundreds of rapes over the course of thirty years, resulting in at least two deaths.
The transgressive, enigmatic figure in PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS is Lucie's father, Tim. He skillfully used the media to create enough interest in her case to force the Japanese police to treat her disappearance seriously, but took a payment from her killer to sign a document casting doubt on evidence from the police.
Parry does do a good job of creating a complex portrait of Japan. He cogently explains the water trade, the jobs perceived as forms of sex work, and the history of the Zainichi, Japanese of Korean descent. They're difficult subjects to address in a chapter or less, but Parry manages to do it in a way that should express them accurately to an unfamiliar audience. The economics of the yen versus Western forms of money during the long time period covered by PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS are mentioned but less fleshed out. Interested readers can seek out more detail in R. Taggart Murphy's seminal work THE WEIGHT OF THE YEN. (Although it should be noted that Murphy's work is preoccupied with Japan-U.S. relations rather than Japan-UK.)
For all the lurid nature of Obara's crimes, PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS is not a lurid book. I appreciated the respect shown for the women Obara violated. But with only a few brief statements from a minority of survivors and no personal interview with Obara, there's a certain lack of drama. The book veers closest to tedium when discussing the investigation and criminal proceedings. Their are two strains of drama that enliven the proceedings.
Grief, guilt, and blame tear the Blackman family apart in the wake of Lucie's death. The ill feelings between her divorced parents escalate into a war over the narrative of her life and her legacy. Tim administers the Lucie Blackman Trust, a non-profit selling items like kits to test drinks for drugs and offering services to families whose loved ones went missing abroad. Jane resents his use of their daughter's name.
The second gripping narrative is the creation of a system of racism and misogyny that allowed a rapist to freely commit his crimes for three decades. He had been accused of rape as early as 1997 and a suspicious character in a woman's death in 1992, but never investigated. But while Parry is critical of the police's methods, he never questions reported crime rates. It strikes me as odd that Parry questions so much in PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS but never discusses the possibility of unreported crimes when throwing out statistics about Japan's safety. His credulity is especially impressive when discussing a man who describes raping hundreds of women in his private papers, of whom less than ten have ever made an accusation.
PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS is an intriguing work, a thorough investigation of a crime that can offer no answer to its questions. There are tedious stretches, but it's a compelling story.