It’s big in Japan

A huge hit in Asia – and a game-changer for detective fiction

Sunday Times, 28 February 2016

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, trans Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

Fourteen years have passed since a seven-year-old girl was abducted and murdered in a provincial city in Japan. The crime has never been solved, an outcome damaging to the reputation of any police force but especially so in a country where saving face is important. When the head of the national police in Tokyo suddenly takes an interest in this tragic cold case, his impending visit to City D provokes a ferocious power struggle among local detectives.

Six Four is the code name of the case, as well as the title of Hideo Yokoyama’s superb novel, which is something of a sensation in Japan and has already sold 1.3m copies there. The murder takes place in the 64th year of the Showa period, otherwise known as the long reign of the Emperor Hirohito, which ended with his death in 1989. The code name is an acknowledgment of the shame felt by detectives who failed to catch the perpetrator, prompting them to make a defiant promise to “drag the kidnapper right back into the 64th year of Showa”.

Such glimpses into the collective mind-set of the police force in City D are both strange and fascinating. If the detectives are acutely aware of their status, so are members of the press, who have their own room in police headquarters and display a sense of entitlement that might surprise British crime reporters. Yokoyama used to be an investigative journalist before he began writing fiction and his portrait of how the Japanese press operates is unflattering, posing questions about the potentially devastating impact of this intense scrutiny on officers and operations.

Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami, currently head of media relations at police HQ, was one of the detectives who sat with the kidnapped girl’s parents during the tense negotiations with the abductor in 1989. Unknown to the reporters who believe he’s unnecessarily withholding information on a series of cases, Mikami’s teenage daughter has run away from home. He has just returned from a four-hour trip by bullet train to view the body of a girl who turned out to be a stranger, the third time in three months that he has had to steel himself for such an ordeal.

Mikami suspects that the chief police’s visit to City D is a PR exercise rather than a genuine attempt to revive the investigation, but it is his job to notify the dead child’s father. Yoshio Amamiya is a widower, living next to a shrine to his daughter, and the parallels between the two men’s lives torment Mikami. When he begins to dig into the old case, speaking to colleagues who were involved in the botched ransom drop, he stumbles across a fatal error at the heart of the original investigation.

This is gripping stuff, fast-paced and involving endless conflicts of loyalties, but Yokoyama has something unexpected up his sleeve. A classic plot about a decent cop painstakingly uncovering corruption suddenly turns into one of the most remarkable revenge dramas in modern detective fiction. All the clues are there, in retrospect, but in a kind of shadow plot that will leave even the most observant reader gasping.

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