Japanese noir looks set to become a detective genre all its own. Six Four, the sixth police thriller by the Japanese newspaper reporter Hideo Yokoyama (but the first to be translated into English), features a sleuth who eats boxfuls of udon noodles while on the bullet train to Tokyo. The novel sold over one million copies in under a week in Japan on publication in 2013. Anglo-Saxon readers will find something new and strange in it. The detective, Yoshinobu Mikami, turns out to be a police media relations chief, which alone is strange as press officers seldom go about a gumshoe’s business. The novel is set in Tokyo in the year 2003.
A sternly pensive slogger with health problems, Mikami smokes too many cigarettes, suffers dizzy spells and has a periodic numbness in one leg. Sometimes he wonders if he should be in the police at all, but stoically pushes on with press investigations into murder, child abuse and financial malpractice. At heart an investigator, Mikami is all too happy to revisit a kidnap case that has remained unresolved in Japan after almost 14 years. The failure of the police to arrest anyone looks suspicious; Mikami embarks on an investigation of his own into what he takes to be a police cover-up.
In 1989, the seven-year-old daughter of a Tokyo pickle factory owner, Shoko, had been abducted and, after a bungled police rescue, found murdered. For five days, Shoko’s anguished parents waited on the abductor’s demands while the news kept all Japan on tenterhooks. Preliminary enquiries established that Shoko had been tied up with washing line and her mouth taped shut. With the passing of time, however, the circumstances surrounding the murder have if anything become more murky. No fibres, fingerprints, dental impressions or other forensic evidence were ever found to implicate anyone. In police parlance, the case was a “sticker”, one that would not be solved.
Mikami’s personal life, meanwhile, is tested by the recent but no less mysterious disappearance of his teenage daughter, Ayumi, whose last movements he can piece together only sketchily. Ayumi seems to have left home after hearing her parents argue, but why Shoko was abducted remains mysterious. The Tokyo police commissioner wants to visit Shoko’s family on the anniversary of the kidnapping in order to pay his condolences; it falls to Mikami to organize the visit and persuade Shoko’s grief-stricken father to allow the commissioner into his home. Drawn further into the Shoko case by his own family loss, Mikami re-opens police files and re-interview suspects from the 1989 kidnapping. Progress is hampered by rivalry between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs and the cops who everywhere compete to “have stars on their collars”. In the author’s jaundiced vision, the Tokyo police are hopelessly careerist and venal.
In the course of his sleuthing, Mikami discovers an anomaly in the Shoko investigations – something called the “Koda memo”. Who or what was Kodo? Even Mikami, the ace surveillance man, is left puzzled. Solving the mystery is now not just a question of salvaging the police’s honour, but of bringing long wished-for peace to the dead girl’s family. The tension ratchets up, but Six Four (whose title alludes to a significant date in the Japanese calendar) is resolutely devoid of any violent-shoot-out or other hard-boiled trappings. Yokoyama’s strength as a mystery writer is the emphasis he places or procedure and deduction, rather than action. For much of the time we seem to live inside the detective’s head, as he attempts to unravel what Sherlock Holmes called the “scarlet thread of murder”. For all the ratiocinations, though, there is a devilishly clever twist near the end.
Readers will be seduced by the leisurely craft with which Yokoyama establishes his detective’s troubled humanity, as well as the ethical failings of his police colleagues. The scenes set inside pachinko parlors, karaoke bars and kendo sports halls are atmospheric and vividly rendered, as are the descriptions of Tokyo by night. “Lining the city road as it crossed the district were large out-of-town supermarkets, home-appliance stores, bowling alleys, outlet stores and a few of the large national chains selling business suits and shoes.” Expertly translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Jones, there is more than enough darkness in Six Four for us all; Japanese noir is here to stay? 1 November 2016