Each holiday season I wait impatiently for the release of the Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, just as I used to look forward to the Sears & Roebuck Christmas Catalog as a child. Back then I would make a first pass, methodically scouring each page and folding down the corners of those featuring a toy my heart desired. Then — knowing it didn’t pay to be greedy when it came to Santa Claus — I’d take several more passes, making heartbreaking trade-offs and turning some corners back up, until I had a wish list I figured the fat man wouldn’t reject.
This serious, methodical, war-of-attrition approach to choosing among large lists of things, when most of those things look pretty great, has carried into my adulthood. It’s definitely my strategy for stocking up on books each year, with the help of the discriminating folks at the New York Times.
The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 list included a book I’d never heard of; it captured my attention immediately and I downloaded it on the spot. People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of the disappearance of a 21-year-old British woman working in Tokyo in the summer of 2000, the seven month search to find her, and the eight year legal battle to bring her killer to justice.
I was drawn to the book first and foremost because I taught English in Japan in the early 1990’s to escape a recession that was decimating public relations (my chosen profession at that time) in New York, and to save money for business school tuition. I was posted to a small rural town more than one hour by bus and train from Kyoto, where I was the only Westerner for miles and therefore the object of some fascination.
Lucie lived in bustling Tokyo among many foreigners, and worked in a Roppongi district hostess bar. Her brief experience in Japan was very different from mine, but I suspect there were still similarities.
As he describes the last day of her life, the author explains what it’s like to be a foreigner, walking down any street in Japan. I experienced this, and I’ll bet Lucie did too.
“The crows flap and complain as Lucy steps outside. As she does, she experiences the small daily shock of reentry that every foreigner in Tokyo knows. A sudden, pulse-quickening awareness of the obvious: Here I am, in Japan. Every morning it takes her by surprise – the sudden consciousness of profound difference… Even after years and decades have passed, you never get over the excitement, the unique daily thrill, of living as a foreigner in Japan.”
A similar observation:
“In twenty-first century Tokyo, people rarely stared openly at foreigners, but always one was conscious of being an object of an unaccustomed attention from the rest of the human population – not outright gawping, neither unambiguous affection nor disapproval, but simply the discreet registering of difference. In Japan, you become a citizen of a new nation – that of gaijin, the foreigner.”
People Who Eat Darkness is not just a mystery or a thriller. It’s also a commentary on the stark differences between Japanese and Western cultures that can take gaijin who travel to Japan completely by surprise. This was another reason I bought – and was riveted by – the book. For example, it dives deep into the discrimination against Korean nationals –like Lucie’s killer Joji Obara – in Japan. They may have been born and educated in Japan and speak only Japanese, been raised on Japanese food, and even amassed enormous wealth, but they are treated as a lower caste of society.
It is also an examination of the slow-moving Japanese criminal justice system. In Japan crime rates are low, and the vast majority of suspects confess before their cases ever go to trial, thanks in part to some rather heavy-handed police tactics. Judges and the public are accustomed to these confessions – and the motives expressed while making them — to the point of being flummoxed by the case of Obara, who refused to own up to his crimes despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence. The outcome of the trial was – and still is – shocking.
Finally, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of a family – most specifically a divorced couple, Lucie’s parents Tim and Jane – so toxic and bitter it will both infuriate you, and break your heart. The Blackmans had divorced acrimoniously nearly a decade before Lucie’s murder, and continue to undermine and lash out of each other to this day. There was no attempt at unity in the face of so much loss and pain.
After a few chapters reading about the Blackmans, I suspect you’ll feel the urge to give your own parents a big family hug.
I thought I vaguely remembered the case of Lucie Blackman, but as I read People Who Eat Darkness I realized that my recollection was more than a little fuzzy. (According to Lloyd Parry I am not alone in confusing Blackman’s case with the grisly murder of another British woman working in Japan, Lindsay Hawker, a few years later.)
Maybe my misapprehensions were due to time passing, or the US media not being thorough in reporting the story. Or perhaps, so soon after a year in Japan that had left me slightly jaded about the culture and customs, I unconsciously built a memory that was biased and lacking in nuance.
Regardless, I feel fortunate that the book jumped out at me from the New York Times Books section last December, and that it passed my exacting screening process. If you’ve ever lived in Japan, or have a keen interest in its culture, People Who Eat Darkness will resonate with you.