Sunday, March 27, 2016

People Who Eat Darkness: Book Review

People Who Eat Darkness
Your child is missing: those are the most frightening words a family can hear. In many ways those words are more terrible than news that a child has been killed. When someone disappears, there is still hope of course, but imagining the horror that a missing loved one may be experiencing has got to be too much to bear. On the other hand, reading about people who have experienced the trauma of a missing child is fascinating and emotionally wrenching in its own way. The very word "disappeared" elicits so many dark and exquisitely terrifying emotions that stories of missing people are instantly appealing and morbidly engaging.

Those tales are doubly fascinating when the person goes missing abroad. Foreign lands are full of the mysterious and the unknown in the best of circumstances. The inscrutable cultural practices, incomprehensible languages and, often times, brazen discrimination or downright hatred of foreigners can combine to drag a family seeking answers about their missing child into a living nightmare.

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, by Richard Lloyd Parry, tells the story of Lucie Blackman, an eighteen year-old English woman who set off for Japan with her friend in May, 2000 and disappeared a few months later. Her family started a desperate search for their daughter shortly after she went missing, but their efforts would end in the worst way imaginable.

Parry goes into great detail regarding Lucie's life before Japan, reconstructs her two months in Tokyo, and then tells the story of the police work that led to Lucie's killer and eventually, the discovery of her body. The book also describes the efforts Lucie's family made to pressure police in Japan to find out what had happened to their daughter. It's a gripping, heart-breaking and utterly absorbing story.

As soon as Lucie's friends reported her missing, Lucie's already-divorced parents put their differences aside and quickly initiated a proactive media campaign and travelled to Japan to ensure that their daughter's disappearance received as much attention as possible. Based on what I have read about similar cases in various Asian countries, I believe it is a course of action anyone in a similar situation should seriously consider. While you obviously wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of the people whose assistance you would need in order to find a missing person and then, hopefully, to see justice done, you also wouldn't want to allow bumbling, shameless or corrupt police to operate without any pressure.

Lucie's father, Tim Blackman has a natural flair for organizing and motivating people and for interacting with the media. Some readers might consider some of his actions strangely out of place considering the situation at the time. But I think far more people will see his response for what it is: the desperate attempts of a distraught father to do whatever is necessary to find his daughter. Much later, after Lucie's body had been found, her suspected murderer arrested, locked up and sentenced to many years in prison for other rapes and assaults (though amazingly, he evaded a guilty verdict in Lucie's killing), Tim Blackman accepted a huge payout from one of the suspected murderer's close friends.

It's a tradition in Japan: the criminal or his family or close friends make a payment to the victim's family as a way of making amends. Some people call it "blood money." But as Tim Blackman would later say in interviews (not contained in the book), is it really any different than people who receive settlements after suing criminals in civil court? Of course, the Japanese blood money payouts are contingent on the person who receives the money signing a statement which can cast the criminal in a more positive light (if that is possible). Lucie's mother was outraged after her former husband accepted the payment, but Tim Blackman claimed much of the money would be used to finance an organization set up in Lucie's name. But at the time of Lucie's disappearance, those events would be years in the future.

This is a lengthy, thoroughly-researched, very well-written book. Beyond the developments of the case, the efforts of Lucie's family, and the trial of the man accused of killing her, Joji Obara, readers also learn about the horrific fallout experienced by Lucie's family, and the strange criminal justice system in Japan. And at every turn of the story, Parry includes more than just superficial descriptions, such as in this passage in which he discusses the history of hostess bars in Japan and the neighbourhood where Lucie and her friend Louise worked:
The earliest foreign participants in the water trade were Korean and Chinese prostitutes, colonial subjects of the prewar Japanese empire. In 1945, Westerners appeared in large numbers, but as buyers rather than sellers, during the seven-year-long U.S. occupation. It was during this period, too, that Roppongi began to emerge as a place of recreation. Its name meant “six trees”; before the war, it had been a nondescript residential area dominated by a barracks of the Japanese Imperial Army. The U.S. military took over the barracks after the surrender, and around its entrance sprang up little bars catering to off-duty soldiers, with names such as Silk Hat, Green Spot, and the Cherry. It was at this time that Roppongi’s curious motto originated. Locals noticed that the American GIs would greet one another by slapping palms together above their heads. One could imagine the scene late at night, as a curious Japanese barman asked his customers about this, and the long, drunken attempt to explain the theory and practice of the high five. It was mistransliterated into Japanese as hai tacchi, or “high touch”—hence the slogan on the walls of the Roppongi expressway: “High Touch Town.”
Parry paints a darkly evocative world of life in Japan for foreigners. I've lived most of my adult life in foreign countries, and I find that Parry captures that experience very well. As an expat, a vaguely unsettling feeling is always hovering at the edge of your thoughts. It's not always an unpleasant feeling—together with the relative anonymity, a day-to-day life that is more stimulating than in most western countries and the enjoyable aspects of the local culture, life can be very good as an expat in Asia. If the darker side of life as a foreigner remains an unrealized abstraction, it can add flavour to the script a person is always writing about his or her own life. Of course, when nationalistic, racist nastiness rears its head, that background music in the autobiographical noir film you're living can become quite frightening.

The outsider theme runs throughout People Who Eat Darkness. Lucie and her friend enter the world of foreigners working as hostesses in Tokyo bars, where they have few rights and willingly subject themselves to the advances of the creeps who have a fetish for young foreign women. The man accused of murdering Lucie, Joji Obara, is also an outsider of sorts in Japan. His parents emigrated to Japan from Korea and suffered all sorts of discrimination as they raised their son in a society which likes to claim it is the most ethnically homogeneous in the world. The author, who lived in Japan at the time of Lucie's disappearance, describes his own experiences as an outsider. Throughout the period when Lucie was missing, and then during the lengthy trials, Parry wrote numerous articles about the case and was eventually sued (unsuccessfully) by Joji Obara. He also became the focus of some nationalistic scumbags who threatened him through the post and confronted him in the street at least once.

I rank People Who Eat Darkness as one of the best true crime books of the past five years. Perhaps that's partly because I can relate strongly to the sentiments about living as a foreigner in Asia, but mainly, I simply feel it's an exceptionally well-written book. It certainly enjoyed a fair amount of success, but I'm kind of surprised it wasn't more popular. Of course, all books, no matter how good, are worthy of criticism. As I thought about what aspect of the book could have been better, I decided to take a look at the most common gripes other readers have made. Nowadays it's hard not to look at, and often be influenced by, reviews that appear on Amazon. Although the book generally receives favourable reviews on Amazon, I was surprised at the number of people who moaned about the overabundance of detail. Call me strange, but in an engaging, multi-layered, haunting tale that evokes such a powerful sense of place, I want all the detail the author can throw at me. In fact, it was one of those books that elicited a feeling of disappointment as the ending approached. I just didn't want the book to end.

Although it's not directly related to the writing, I found the cover art (there are at least three different covers I believe) oddly lacking. And for some reason, there have been at least three different subtitles for the book. Those are obviously very minor criticisms that take away nothing from the reading experience, but maybe are an indication that the publishers didn't give this book the publicity it deserved. Perhaps it doesn't quite rise to the level of the all-time greats in the genre such as Helter Skelter or The Executioner's Song, but People Who Eat Darkness is a book that most fans of true crime (save for those who apparently can't handle too much of a good thing) will find well worth their time.