Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

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Translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

Reviewed by Gill Davies

What an odd novel! It is Yokoyama’s sixth, his first to be translated into English, and was an immediate best-seller in Japan. But even taking into account the cultural differences this is quite different from any crime novel I know. It is occasionally frustrating but always entirely original. From the cover, we expect a traditional crime shocker. Two parents arrive at the morgue to identify a young woman’s body. Unexpectedly, they turn out to be the main character, a police officer, and his wife. The body is not their daughter’s and her absence haunts the rest of this very long narrative. After this dramatic opening, the pace slows and much of the plot focuses on rivalries between departments – press relations; administrative affairs; criminal investigation – and between the provincial establishment and Tokyo.

Mikami is the press director in the administrative affairs department at police headquarters. And if that sounds dull and bureaucratic, (which is how it feels to the protagonist too) then it is, but it becomes engrossing. Mikami is restless and unhappy after having only recently been moved from criminal investigation to this desk job that seems mainly designed to keep the press happy and off the other detectives’ backs.

How did Personnel benefit from taking an inspector at the top of his game, one whose head was filled with the strict application of the criminal code, and assigning him to be protective gatekeeper in a role divorced from the force’s original mission?

Even assuming that strange transfers are common in the Japanese police  service, this seems perverse – but all Mikami’s skills will be needed in the coming days.

A key element is the hostility of his boss, Akama who, having appointed him to reform the press department, starts to be obstructive and critical. When tensions develop with the press organisation over Mikami’s (correct) refusal to disclose the name of a suspect, they revolt and Mikami finds himself caught between them and by his superiors. He begins to suspect that another chief in personnel called Futawatari has been instrumental in blocking his return to detective work and may be more deeply involved in the mysteries surrounding the unsolved murder that is at the heart of this novel. While inter-departmental conflict is not unique to Japan – indeed it is frequently found in police-based crime fiction – the cultural context gives it a specific resonance. The structure of Japanese society with its respect for authority and conventions of deference mean that Mikami is constantly having to manoeuvre, to comply with instructions he doesn’t consider wise or just. The men in suits aren’t just the bureaucrats, they are extremely powerful and demand obeisance, often in humiliating ways. We are deep inside the institutions and culture of Japanese society and I was intrigued:  the continuing importance of not ‘losing face’; the police take gifts of rice crackers when they visit a former colleague and flowers to place on a shrine to a victim; the differential treatment of male and female officers; the deep bows made when leaving a superior’s office. Much of this would be familiar to a Japanese reader but for an English reader it can seem very strange. It certainly adds a different kind of tension and a refreshingly unfamiliar dynamic. The police simply don’t do what you’d expect them to do in traditional European or American policiers.

While the plot concerning the immediate conflict in the department bubbles along, a further complication arises with the slow emergence of issues surrounding a 14 year old unsolved kidnap-murder case. Shoko, the seven-year-old daughter of the owners of a Tokyo pickle factory, was kidnapped and killed after a ransom had been handed over. Mikami had been a detective on the case but now in his press role, he is involved in setting up a visit from the Tokyo commissioner general to the crime scene and the parents of the murdered child. (This is a last attempt to seek information before the statute of limitations closes the investigation down.) Steadily, though, he discovers that there were errors and  cover-ups in the original investigation and much of the rest of the novel teases these out.

The novel’s title refers to the date of the murder, on the cusp of two eras, the Showa and the Heisei. 1989, as well as being the year of the death of the notorious emperor Hirohito, was also the high point of the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ (or ‘bubble economy’ depending on your politics) and as such has a strong resonance for Japanese readers. It didn’t have that frisson for me – but one of the great pleasures in reading ‘foreign’ crime fiction is the way in which it takes you inside the culture of unfamiliar countries. This partly explains the success of ‘Nordic Noir’, some of which is no more plausible or original than routine English police procedurals (serial killers and paedophiles are unfortunately over-represented) but the language, culture and locations create both mystery and novelty. This is even truer of a non-European setting. The social structure, political organisations and cultural attitudes on display are intriguingly different. Nevertheless, the core of the novel is  familiar enough: institutional corruption and cover-up, neglect of victims and the less powerful.

Six Four is slow-moving – it weighs a lot and at 635 pages its length may intimidate, but it is engrossing, original and well worth reading. I liked what Mark Lawson said in his review in the Guardian (4.3.2016): it ‘seems to me a prime example of a … phenomenon that began with Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – the box set novel. Rejecting the pace and economy of a movie, these stories build incrementally with lingering closeups on people and places…. There’s much talk these days of binge viewing; here is a binge read.’

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Hideo Yokoyama, Six Four, translated from the Japanese by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies (Quercus, 2016). 978-1848665255, 635pp., hardback.

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