Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: A review

This book was a sensation when it was first published in Japan in 2011. Published in English in the UK last year, it also garnered respectable sales. Now the U.S. edition is out, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, and it will be interesting to see how it is received in the long term here.

For this is a very different crime fiction/thriller/police procedural to what American readers are used to. For one thing the protagonist is not a detective, although he has been a police detective in the past and for most of his professional career. But at the time that we meet Yoshinobu Mikami, he has for several months been the press director for the police department, charged with liaising with journalists and getting out the story which the police want to get out to the public. It's a role that he finds something like a strait jacket and he does not embrace it. He spends much of his time longing to be transferred back into the Criminal Investigation Division.

Moreover, when we meet Mikami, he and his wife have suffered their own tragedy. Their teenage daughter has run away from home and even though the thousands of police across the country are on the lookout for her, no one has seen her. Periodically, Mikami and his wife are called to various morgues to look at the bodies of teenage girls to determine if this one is in fact their daughter. They have just completed such a sad journey at the beginning of the novel. But the latest body was not their daughter and so hope still lives. 

Meanwhile, on the job, Mikami is looking at the fourteenth anniversary of the kidnapping of a seven-year-old girl named Shoko who was held for ransom but was subsequently killed even though the ransom was delivered as instructed. We are told that this is the only kidnapping or murder in all those years that the police department of this Prefecture has not solved(!), and it is viewed as an indelible stain upon the entire department. For fourteen years they have continued to work the case but are no nearer to solving it and now the statute of limitations will run out in just a year.

Now, on the anniversary of the kidnapping, the police commissioner is planning to come from Tokyo for a visit to the crime scene and to pay his respects to (and have a photo op with) Shoko's family. It is up to Mikami as press director to arrange all this.

For much of this very, very long (almost 600 pages) book, we follow Mikami as he works to accomplish this task. In so doing, he runs into incredible bureaucratic tangles, something like office politics to the nth degree. At the same time, he must wrestle with the press and try to keep them in line and happy. It seems impossible. Mikami's mental and physical health seem at risk in all of this.

The fourteen-year-old kidnapping case is referred to as Six Four for reasons having to do with the year of the emperor's reign in which it occurred. So much of this novel is like a tour of the culture of Japan. We see the police, on the way to interview a witness, stopping to buy a "home-visiting gift" of rice crackers. Visits to Shoko's family's home involve the ritual burning of incense at the household shrine. Much of the plot and much of the press' irritation with the press director's office turns on the Japanese practice of granting widespread anonymity to those involved in crime cases. And throughout, there are repeated references to the cops' concerns with "losing face" in the community. Indeed, some of those involved in the unsuccessful investigation of the crime have had their lives ruined by their failure. 

Yes, this is a very different sort of crime fiction. Passionate as they are about their cases, I can't imagine John Rebus or Harry Bosch worrying about losing face, or spending fourteen years locked in a room because they feel responsible for errors made in the original investigation, as one of the technicians here does. 

Reviewing the old case, Mikami begins to see some anomalies and finally gets a chance, near the end, to act as a detective as well as a press director.

I was captivated by this plot from the first, but as the novel went on, seemingly endlessly, I lost a bit of my enthusiasm for it. By the end, I was leaning toward a three-star review, but on balance, I decided to go with four stars. It is a very well-plotted story and the writer plays fair throughout. The clues are there if we are smart enough to pick them up. The story is seen entirely through the eyes of Mikami and told from his point of view, and the reader is left hoping by the end that this conflicted man will finally find some peace.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

4 comments:

  1. It sounds like an intriguing, yet different police procedural.

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  2. OK, it is my turn to say, "Another book I had not heard of but would likely read." I like that it gives so much insight into Japanese customs. I assume this is set in modern times. Thanks for your review and for getting through the book, though long. It has 302 reviews on Goodreads!!

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    1. Yes, it is set in the present and it does very much open a window into Japanese culture. I first heard of it last year when I read the review in The Guardian. I put it on my TBR list but never acted on it. Recently, I read another review in the NYT and thought, "Hey, I remember that and I need to read it!" So, I did.

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