This is a big, ambitious true crime book in the tradition of Norman Mailer's The Executioner’s Song, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Gordon Burn’s classic British studies of the Yorkshire Ripper and Fred/Rosemary West murders. It’s an absorbing story and an impressive feat of investigative journalism.
The murder victim was Lucie Blackman, a young, drifting middle-class British woman struggling to make a living in a Tokyo hostess bar. The author, the Asia editor of The Times, followed the case intently when it broke in 2000 and this book is the product of a long obsession. His study is deepened by his familiarity with Tokyo and Japanese culture, though he admits that what happened to Lucie Blackman came out of a side of the city he didn’t really know. He is as sure-footed on the organization and culture of hostess bars as he is in depicting the operations of the Tokyo police and the workings of the criminal justice system.
The author won the confidence of the Blackman family and was given access to Lucie’s diaries and other personal writings which he deploys well to show the ordinariness and vulnerability of the victim. The most difficult sections of the book are those which deal with the impact of her death on her family.
The chapters narrating the bitter feud between her separated parents (‘the war for the possession of Lucie’) make for uncomfortable reading. The charming father is portrayed far more sympathetically than the mother: Tim channels his grief into constructive ends, such as the Lucie Blackman Trust; Jane is shown as embittered and spiteful, the frequenter of mediums and healers. Though it leaves a nasty taste, this is a salutary study of how crime can devastate families.
Parry’s portrait of Joji Obara, the man charged with Lucie’s murder, is intriguing though it raises as many questions as it answers. Obara was someone who moved ‘in the darkness’; he ‘came out of Japan – but it was so difficult to say exactly where’. Nevertheless, the bare factual account of his upbringing and socialization is illuminating. The author is honest in admitting that he never got close to understanding Obara despite his efforts of investigation and imagination; he seems to exemplify ‘the banality of evil’, an ‘absence’ which ‘withered the lives he came into contact with’. £17.99, Jonathan Cape
Words by Kester Aspden
Kester Aspden won the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction for his debut The Hounding of David Oluwale. His next book, Broken English: Memoir of a Troubled Youth, is published by Simon & Schuster in Spring 2012