Mo Hayder is for the most part one of Britain’s top crime writers – they sure know how to breed crime writers in the UK – and while I’ve read most of her books centred on the characters of Jack Caffery and Flea Marley, it is the standalone Tokyo (published in some territories as The Devil of Nanking) that has stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
I first read it in 2004 and although I rated it 5 stars in 2012 when I first joined Goodreads, I didn’t write a review, feeling it was too long ago to do it proper justice. I recently included it in my top ten books blog post and decided it was time to re-read it and post a review.
The quotes on the front and back cover and on the first page are a who’s who of other authors lining up to recommend it: Michael Connelly, Minette Walters, Harlan Coben, Val McDermid, Tess Gerritsen, Colin Dexter and Karin Slaughter. I was already reading Mo Hayder when this book was published so the recommendations didn’t factor into my purchasing decision, but they powerfully reinforced what I came to feel about the book.
Tokyo is the story of Grey, a young English woman who was brought up in an extremely sheltered home. As a teenager, she read an obscure fact in an equally obscure book and used that knowledge to recreate an act (which I can’t tell you about or it will ruin the conclusion). Her parents, her doctors and the nurses at the mental health facility she was committed to told her over and over that the act was evil, that she was evil. She tried to tell them about the book to prove she didn’t have evil intentions but the book had mysteriously disappeared from her parents’ bookshelves.
It’s a decade later and Grey has travelled to Tokyo to seek out Professor Shi Chongming, who is rumoured to have an old film of the act she read about. She is on a quest to see that film and to prove that there was nothing evil in what she did. But the professor is reluctant to help her, denying at first that the film even exists.
Grey has no money and no plan for what she was going to do once she got to Tokyo other that seeking out the professor. But she becomes a club hostess to tide herself over after meeting Jason (who also works in the club) in a cemetery where she slept her first night in Tokyo. He also gives her a place to stay. At the club, she meets Fuyuki, a notorious but very old yakuza boss. Fuyuki has something that Shi Chongming wants and when the professor finds out about Grey’s access to the old man, he proposes a deal. If she helps him get what he wants, he will give her the film.
The appeal of Grey, to the reader as well as to the men she meets in the club, is her complete lack of artifice. She has become an expert on the Japanese massacre of Chinese citizens in Nanking in 1937 through her university studies and enlightens the current day Japanese men who come to the club but who have been denied proper knowledge of their country’s history.
The tale of Grey’s quest is interspersed with diary entries written by Shi Chongming when he was living in Nanking with his pregnant wife. China and Japan were at war but the professor knew the Japanese as a respectful, cultured race and refused to leave when they invaded and occupied Nanking. Mo Hayder must have done a lot of research on this terrible historical incident and it is well incorporated. Reading the book again, I did wonder about her portrayal of Chinese and Japanese characters. I hope they’re not stereotypes and I didn’t think they were but I’m not much of a judge being neither Japanese nor Chinese.
This is not the book to read if you are looking for something action packed. It is a slow burn, beautifully but unhurriedly paced, and you are really given the opportunity to get to know both Grey and Shi Chongming. Their stories have a heartbreaking but meaningful parallel and the ending is not perfect but very, very close.
Like I said, it’s on my top ten books list so I highly recommend it. It won’t be for everyone but if you’re a fan of novels that incorporate actual history, if you’re a fan of well-written novels, if you’re a fan of complex stories, if you’re a fan of realistic stories, if you’re a fan of stories set outside a regular person’s everyday existence, if you’re a fan of beautiful endings, then give it a go and I hope it is as memorable for you as it has been and still is for me.
*First published on Goodreads 4 August 2015