Murder among the ruins: David Peace's novels draw on true crimes
Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Min, min, min, min, miin.
As David Peace and I talk about the onomatopoeic
Japanese phrases the British crime writer uses in his latest novel, Tokyo Year
Zero (Faber and Faber, 368 pp, 16.99 pounds), it seems fitting that our
conversation should be accompanied by the sound of cicadas outside his office
in northeast Tokyo on a midsummer's day.
"I'm trying to capture the sound," Peace
says, when asked about his use of expressions such as "gari-gari" for
the sound of scratching and the "chiku-taku" of clocks in his
dramatization of the true story of Yoshio Kodaira, a Japanese serial killer
responsible for the rape and murder of at least eight women in 1945 and 1946.
Described by GQ magazine as "British crime
fiction's most exciting new voice in decades," Peace was also chosen as
one of Granta magazine's Best of Young Novelists in 2003.
Although the 40-year-old author didn't get his
first novel published until 1999, his literary ambitions go back a little
"I'd been interested in writing since I was about
8. When I was a kid, my favorite books were Sherlock Holmes books and Marvel
and DC comics, and then I got into, for want of a better phrase, avant-garde
fiction like [William S.] Burroughs, [Samuel] Beckett and J.G. Ballard,"
But it was when he left his native West Yorkshire
to enter higher education that he began pursuing his writing in earnest.
"While I was at Manchester Poly I was writing
this huge novel. When I graduated, I spent a year on the dole in Manchester
finishing it, and every publisher in Britain rejected it," he says.
Unable to find work in recession-hit Britain, he
ended up teaching English in Istanbul and didn't pick up a pen in anger again
until he landed a job as a teacher in Japan in 1994. Even then, the scars from
his previous encounter with the literary world still remained.
"The experience of having that first novel
rejected was very depressing, so I wrote 1974 [his first published novel] in
exercise books just for myself. I honestly didn't really write [it]...with
publication in mind," he says.
But a visit by his father to Japan and a
fortuitous downpour gave him a boost of confidence.
"It really, really rained for two days so he
read the book in the exercise books and said, 'You know, this is really all
right so you should try and get it published.'"
So while his English-teaching colleagues studied
Japanese or practiced karate before inviting students to listen and repeat,
Peace worked on 1974 and 1977, which, along with 1980 and 1983, would become
the Red Riding Quartet, a series of stories set in the north of England in the
1970s and early '80s.
1977 and 1980 focus on the notorious English
serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who was
sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for the murders of 13 women from 1975 to
1980. As a boy growing up in the White Rose county, Peace found the hunt for a
mass murderer swirling around him, with 1977 a turning point.
"It was hot, and it was the [Queen's Silver]
Jubilee. I'd been dimly aware of the case, but that was when the Yorkshire
Ripper murdered the first so-called innocent girl, meaning a nonprostitute, and
people began to really panic," he remembers.
When Sutcliffe was arrested in early 1981, the
teenage Peace was right in the thick of things.
"He was brought to Dewsbury Magistrates
[Court] so me and this guy bunked off school and stood outside the court all
day and watched the media [who had gathered there to cover the case]...and this
growing mob of punks with nooses, making signs [like] 'Hang him,' and at about
5:30 [p.m.] they brought him in. I remember being pushed, not to touch him, but
you were swept along, and that had quite an impact on me," he says.
Peace meticulously researches all of his books,
but how did he gather material for Tokyo Year Zero?
"While I can speak Japanese to some degree
and can read and write hiragana and katakana, I've got a very poor
understanding of kanji and I was worried that, while there were
English-language newspapers at that time, and they're all available in the
[National Diet] Library, the real details I needed, the kind of things to
really bring it to life, would be written in the Japanese newspapers," he
Help came in the shape of Shunichiro Nagashima, a
young editor at his Japanese publisher, who offered to translate any relevant
articles on the case, leaving Peace to focus on English-language material.
"I went through the English-language
newspapers for the whole of '45 and '46 and took copious notes. I read all the
nonfiction that was available, like Embracing Defeat by John Dower.
"I also read in English a lot of Dazai Osamu
novels that were set during or after the war because there are really fantastic
little details," he says.
Set in post-World War II Japan, Tokyo Year Zero is
the first part of The Tokyo Trilogy, which will focus on three crimes from that
"The Kodaira case, which is actually now
forgotten by most Japanese people, the Teigin Bank case, which everyone knows
about, and the death of the head of the Japanese National Railways, [Sadanori]
Shimoyama," he says.
So 13 years after flying into Narita Airport, what
prompted him to write about his adopted home?
"Initially all I was interested in was
writing books set in Yorkshire, but at the same time I did develop a
fascination with Tokyo--I would never say I was that interested in Japan, it
was always more Tokyo--and very early on I read a book called Tokyo Rising by
Edward Seidensticker, about Tokyo since the Great Earthquake [of 1923], and in
that book there's a very brief mention of two bodies being found in 1946 in the
place where Tokyo Tower is now.
"A year later a book came out called Shocking
Crimes of Postwar Japan by Mark Schreiber, and in that book there is a chapter
on the Kodaira case."
It was not only the killings that fascinated
Peace, but also the time they took place.
"The reason I picked this case is that I've
got two children, and their mother is Japanese, and they go to school in Japan.
I just felt that the history on both sides didn't seem to match what had
actually happened, whether you were a victor or a loser.
"I really wanted to show what it was like to
be defeated. I think it's a book about defeat. We're not all successful, but I
think we've all, at some point, been defeated," he says.
And Peace makes no apologies for the grim picture
he paints in Tokyo Year Zero.
"It's not that I wake up in the morning and
say, 'I'm going to write some grim stuff today,' but I'm drawn to it," he
In Tokyo Year Zero the capital is a bleak world
where confusion reigns hand-in-hand with the occupying "Victors," and
"no one is who they seem to be"--a recurring phrase that Peace uses
to convey the blurring of identities that resulted from postwar political
"The purges were not for things like killing
Koreans willy-nilly, they were for things like being members of the kendo club.
So someone would retire and [a colleague] would take his name, not only in the
police but any kind of government ministry.
"People are adopting identities and changing
their names all the time, so quite literally no one was who they seemed to
be," he explained as he topped up my glass of oolong tea.
"The narrator is not who he seems to be but
then again, without getting too arty-farty about it, I don't think any of us
are who we seem to be," he adds.
As for modern Tokyo, Peace thinks the city should
be proud of its enviably low crime rate even though, as the father of two young
children, he has some reservations.
"I've always found Tokyo to be much safer
than any English city by a long way...My son can go and play in the park,
whereas I don't think I'd let him if he was in England.
"Having said that, I still wouldn't let my
daughter go and play in the park. I do worry about her growing up in Japan. I
mean, I think that whether you're foreign or Japanese, it's a country geared to
men," he says, reinforcing his point by tapping the desk ominously.
Ton-ton. Ton-ton. Ton-ton.
(Aug. 11, 2007)