Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Difficult Meal

I recently finished reading a true crime book called People Who Eat Darkness. It found its way into my book queue after it was oddly mentioned in close proximity on two different podcasts I listen to. It chronicles the case of Lucie Blackman, a young British woman in her 20s who went to work as a hostess in Tokyo and abruptly vanished.

The book comes from journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, who covered the case as it unfolded, starting in the year 2000. As another foreigner working abroad in Japan, his is perhaps the ideal voice to convey the social landscape of Japan and explain to Westerners the context in which this disappearance -- at the risk of a small spoiler, I'll say "this crime" -- takes place.

People Who Eat Darkness is an exposé in equal parts on a cultural clash and a criminal case. Parry does an excellent job in pulling back the curtain on what could be most easily (but also somewhat pejoratively) called Tokyo's "sex trade." In reality, the job of hostess in the type of Tokyo bar where young Lucie Blackman worked was more about unfulfilled titillation than anything else. The job of hostess is not to be a prostitute, but essentially to be "arm candy," to dote on patrons and squeeze money from them.

At the same time, there is a seediness to it all, as hostesses are expected to do far more than laugh at jokes and pretend to be into guys who visit their clubs. Parry explains the culture of these clubs in deep detail, showing how the hostesses are in a high pressure environment where they must agree to one-on-one "dates" outside of the club to make any real money (or indeed, to even keep their jobs). And while the prevailing tone of Japanese culture is such that even this arrangement is widely regarded as innocent and safe, it creates the space in which a predatory monster can easily operate.

That leads to the criminal side of the book. It's not hard to guess what really happened to Lucie Blackman, but it is nevertheless compelling for Parry to slowly reveal it. Again, the difference in cultures between Japan and the reader's makes for quite a shock. Everything about the criminal justice system in Japan is different, from crime rates to police methods to the trial in court. Parry does a good job of explaining the differences fairly (without pushing the reader hard to indulge in criticism), and it's fascinating.

And of course, there is also the story of the victim herself in all of this, and of her family. A lot of pages are spent on Lucie Blackman and her family. At some risk of seeming cold, I'll say that this is the least engaging part of the book. It's important not to lose sight of the human cost in a story like this, but a fair amount of the Blackmans' story -- despite this horrific event in their lives -- is rather typical post-divorce family drama. Where the rest of the book is painting a culture so different, this element is sadly all too familiar.

But overall, People Who Eat Darkness is an engaging read (if sometimes tough, given the subject matter). I give it a B. Fans of the true crime genre may want to check it out.

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