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Jim Douglas (Jim Hickey and Douglas Forrester)
Fledgling Press, 21 November 2016
I'm grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this book.
Charlie Davis, a modern-day heretic, ditches his past and rushes into a picaresque journey through the glistening nights of Tokyo and the desolate wilds of northern Hokkaido. But the past is not so ready to ditch him; wistful private investigator Colin McCann, hired to look into the death of a wealthy businessman’s daughter, has a few hard questions for Charlie and won’t give up until he’s got answers. And he’s not the only one on Charlie’s trail.
Enter a world of empty orchestras, night butterflies, polite assassins, decadent TV celebrities and a pit-bull called Marvin. Tokyo Nights is a quest and an investigation into what we have become, a dark parable, a wake-up call to the dead 21st century obsessed with compromise, safety and longevity, and a novel that celebrates the excitement and energy of a culture like no other.
I found this book brilliant in places, infuriating in others and intriguing overall. There's definitely a touch of genius to it.
My immediate impression is that it's trying to be, and in many ways succeeding at being, 'noir'. ('Tokyo Noir' has a ring to it). It is also though trying to explore and convey the restless excitement of modern Japanese culture (to Western eyes), and to to touch on spiritual themes. I think that the 'noir' comes off better than the other two aspects: perhaps all three is simply too ambitious for one book. But better to be ambitious than aim low.
The book is mostly told through the eyes of McCann, the investigator, not through those of Davis. So the narrative is coloured by his - McCann's - quest to discover what happened to Natasha Philips, who dies apparently of a drug overdose shortly before the book opens. David is in the frame for that and - in flashbacks - we see McCann establish the background and follow him to Japan, taking a cover job as teacher at the same school of English. It's here we get some pretty full on accounts of Tokyo nightlife written very much as carnal and sensual excess. McCann's attempts to keep up with Davis in drinking - to try and corner him and force a confession, or at least a story - take him into a neon lit and incomprehensible demimonde.
I said above that this is Japan seen through Western eyes and it's hard to separate the glamour of a foreign culture from the Bacchanalian excess described. Perhaps a Japanese account of a Friday night in, say, Manchester or Paris would actually seem quite similar. Whatever, the description is vividly done and - to bring me back to the noirishness - there are overtones of real menace and of course things soon take a darker turn, with Davis and McCann stumbling into secrets they'd rather not know.
I enjoyed these parts of the book - the fights, the chases through backstreets at two in the morning - rather more than those scenes of heavy drinking, of eying up the girls in the bars. But perhaps that's because I'm more a plot than a description kind of person - I know a good book needs both!
I was less sure about the focus on Davis as almost a spiritual figure, hinted at in the blurb above where he is described as a 'modern-day heretic'. I never quite got what orthodoxy it is he's supposed to be challenging: he presents in the book mostly as a bit of a hippy with a sideline in Tarot, a far from unique type. A couple of times we're told that he's a threatening, even dominant figure - McCann and Harold, Natasha's dad, seems to think so - but I didn't see this (though he can certainly handle himself in a fight). The central figure of the book, then, is left frustratingly vague: there isn't much from his point of view and he doesn't quite seem to play the role he's set up for.
That aside, this is an enjoyable slice of - what? - crime/ thriller/ noir against a truly enthralling background (though it might have been nice to explore more of Japan than the bars and nightclubs on the one hand and the remote countryside of Hokkaido on the other). After what happens here I don't think McCann will be going back to explore anytime soon, which is a pity, but I hope there are future outings for this thoughtful private investigator (and his dog Marvin) despite the untimely death of one of his co-creators.
A truly original book and one that gripped me.