Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace is not like any book I have read before. When you have read as many books from as eclectic an assortment of genres as I have, it’s very rare to find an author do something you’ve never seen. David Peace’s detective story Tokyo Year Zero stretches the hard-boiled detective genre into uncharted territory and gets under the reader’s skin like no other book I’ve ever read.
The novel’s setting, post war Japan, is not a new one but it is a rarely visited one. This type of post war setting has been explored before, done wonderfully well in Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir series and in Joseph Kanon’s The Good German, but Tokyo Year Zero sets the mystery in post war Japan instead of post war Germany. While what happened in Germany is familiar territory for American readers, what happened in Japan remains largely a mystery. (It’s difficult to imagine a Japanese version of The Reader becoming a best seller with a movie version playing in American multiplexes.)
Tokyo Year Zero provides an antidote to this situation. The mystery compels the reader, as with all good detective stories, but the setting also compels. Tokyo Year Zero is able to teach a great deal of history without teaching history–as the book progresses we learn all we need to know about life in post war Japan under occupation, and about life in war time Japan under military rule, because, like most detective novels set after a war, the search for answers leads back to what happened during the war.
There is a good murder mystery here, based on a real life serial killer who murdered many women during and after World War II. As a detective story, Tokyo Year Zero is a solid, successful thriller. But that’s not what makes Tokyo Year Zero stand out as a novel that stretches the genre, as a novel that brings something completely new to readers. What’s new is the way David Peace gets so fully under the reader’s skin.
Tokyo Year Zero is set after World War II during a time when all of Japan was under massive re-construction. It’s easy to see the city as one giant building site, filled with endless hammering. It’s one thing to say so, but it’s another to make that hammering a constant presence in the reader’s experience as it is in the character’s lives. Mr. Peace does this by continually littering the scenes in his novel with the Ton-ton of the hammers. Sometimes the hammering is worse than it is at others. The results can read like a prose poem:
I take a different route back up to Tokyo Metropolitan Police Headquarters. Ton-ton. The air is more humid than ever. Ton-ton. The hammering louder than ever. Ton-ton. I want to wash my face. Ton-ton. I want to wash my hands. Ton-ton. I step inside the Hibiya Public Hall. Ton-ton. I wish I hadn’t. Ton-ton. It is the inaugural convention of the Congress of Industrial Unions. Ton-ton. The now-shabby lobby of this once-grand hall is filled with counter-intelligence agents and military policemen, foreign journalists and Japanese snitches, their paperclips in their lapels and an extra ration of cigarettes. Ton-ton. Young men selling Akahata. Ton-ton. Young men whistling “The red Flag’. Ton-ton. I want to wash my face. Ton-ton. I want to wash my hands. Ton-ton. I walk through the Sinchu Gun armbands and the press-corps badges. Ton-ton. The auditorium is dark and airless, packed with men standing and sweating, either staring or shouting at the large stage. Ton-ton…..The speeches begin. Ton-ton.
Very soon the hammering becomes too much to bear, and the reader is forced to tune it out, to just try to skip over it or ignore it. But it’s not easy to do; it never lets up for long. It began to drive me so crazy that I could not help but wonder why Mr. Peace included it. Why deliberately try to drive your readers nuts? Tokyo Year Zero is more than a detective story. It is the story of one man’s attempt to remain sane in a world that appears to be actively trying to drive him mad. The first person present tense narration combined with the constant repetition of hammering, other construction noise, even the narrator’s own repeated thoughts, give Tokyo Year Zero a sense of immediacy unlike any I’ve ever encountered before. By the end of the book I had the sense that I was sharing Detective Minami’s journey into madness.
It’s not a place I want to go, but Tokyo Year Zero is a novel that takes the reader places. Isn’t that what a good novel is supposed to do?
In the years since I first reviewed this novel on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have read and enjoyed the second book in the series, Occuipied City, but I’m still waiting for book thee to come along. When it does, I’ll be there.