Review: Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace (2007)

Tokyo Year Zero British-born David Peace comes on like James Ellroy with a pint of warm Yorkshire ale in his hand. Like Ellroy’s, Peace’s novels are brittle, brutal dissections of societies, springing from true crimes. For more than a decade, Peace has chronicled the bloodstained history of his birthplace from his adopted home in Japan, and the payoff to that literary exile is Tokyo Year Zero.

This isn’t the Japan of cherry blossoms and ninjas. It’s the burnt-out shell of a nation, rebuilding after World War II. Detective Minami has been assigned to the murder-rape case that would go down in true-crime infamy as the work of serial killer the Japanese Bluebeard. It is from Minami’s viewpoint that the world unfurls, as one body soon becomes many and he discovers that corruption and ineptitude had let the killer go free before. But he barely cares: On these lonely streets, cases take second place to finding water that isn’t rancid and food that isn’t rotten.

It would be easy to say that occupation-era Japan is Peace’s metaphor for occupation-era Iraq, with its poverty and sectarian bloodshed echoed in the black markets of Tokyo and the racially motivated gang wars that Minami has to negotiate. But there is also enough about America here: an imperial power, contending with a war it can no longer defend. So Minami is not simply a burnt-out cop. He’s a burnt-out cop in a capital city that once dominated an empire through martial glory, and now half its police are war criminals in hiding. Nor is he the typical hard-boiled detective, since the average gumshoe doesn’t spend half of his life literally bowing to his bosses, inwardly cursing them and himself. Peace makes him a driven man, not by the case but by the prayer-bead rhythms that give the book a staccato insistence: the chika-taku of his watch; the ton-ton hammering of bombs and reconstruction; the gari-gari scratching of lice and fleas. In their insistence and repetition, like the squalor and corruption that Peace portrays, there’s as much horror and madness as in the crimes Minami struggles to solve.

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