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Sunday, July 6, 2008
Peace follows turbulent times
It took Tokyo-based author David Peace six novels before he wrote about his adopted city, reports David Hickey. Now he can't stop
By DAVID HICKEY
"It was a nightmare," laughs Tokyo-based author David Peace of a recent trip to Paris to promote the French version of his most successful novel, "The Damned Utd."
A fictionalized account of Brian Clough's tumultuous 44-day reign in 1974 as manager of Leeds United Football Club, "The Damned Utd" has not been out of the top 100 hundred best-selling paperbacks in Peace's native England since publication in 2006. Two years on, and its author is still dragging himself around the world promoting it, although Peace first made his name almost a decade ago with four crime novels known collectively as the Red Riding Quartet — in part based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders — and his recent book, the historical crime fiction "Tokyo Year Zero," is his most acclaimed to date.
But back to Paris.
"They'd just released 'The Damned Utd' in France," explains Peace. "And in January, 'Tokyo Year Zero' had been published there. I was live on radio taking part in a panel discussion, and there was this English girl translating. And at one point she's going (under his breath), 'You're not going to believe this. She thinks your dad is Jack the Ripper.' I say, 'Does she mean the Yorkshire Ripper?'
"So the interviewer's like, 'OK, so your father was the Yorkshire Ripper?' I'm like, 'No.'
"But your mother was a victim?"
Peace's interlocutor that day could be forgiven for confusing his story, given the furious pace at which he has worked and the ground he has covered. Since his debut in 1999 with "1974," which followed crime reporter Edward Dunford — like Peace, from Osset in West Yorkshire — on the grisly trail of a murdered schoolgirl, the 41-year-old has written seven novels, is halfway through another and has at least three more knocking about in his head.
That he can see the funny side is a relief.
Peace — married with two young children — doesn't look like he's going to strip me naked, nail my hands and feet to the wooden door of his office and hurl me into the Shiba Canal, as is the fate of one of the police detectives in "Tokyo Year Zero." Wearing black, thick-rimmed glasses and dressed in dark trousers and a buttoned-up Fred Perry shirt, Peace is nonviolent. Friendly, even. He has lived in Tokyo since 1994, although his West Yorkshire brogue remains intact (books is pronounced "boooks").
"Tokyo Year Zero," published last year and now available here in paperback in English or Japanese, impressed The New York Times Book Review so much that they mentioned Peace in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoevski, William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Hallowed company indeed, although there's nothing hallowed about the novel's subject matter: It follows pill-popping protagonist Detective Minami's pursuit of the real-life sex killer Yoshio Kodaira, who raped and murdered at least eight women between 1945 and 1946. "Tokyo Year Zero" is the first in a planned trilogy of historical crime novels set in Tokyo during the Allied Occupation, where "a long-dead fish is a whole week's wage" and corrupt police make calls at the shabby apartments of "hostesses and mistresses . . . balladeers and gangsters."
Peace is currently "halfway" through the next novel in the trilogy. "Tokyo Occupied City" is about the Teigin Incident of Jan. 26, 1948, in which a man passing himself off as a health official convinced 16 people at a Tokyo bank to drink a poisonous liquid he said was a remedy for dysentery, killing 12 of them. The final installment, "Tokyo Resurrected," should examine the Shimoyama Incident of 1949, in which the president of the Japanese National Railways was found dead on train tracks, apparently struck by one his company's own trains.
Next year will see the release of the film adaptation of "The Damned Utd," starring Michael Sheen ("The Queen"). As well, three of the books in the Red Riding Quartet (so called because they are set largely in the West Riding area in Yorkshire) are being adapted for British television.
Clearly, Peace's star is very much in the ascendant. But asked if he's ready for fame, he's phlegmatic.
"I think I'm better off here," he says, laughing.
From where did the idea come for a trio of novels set in Tokyo during the Occupation, and why focus on these crimes?
Initially, what I wanted to do was write four books that were going to tell the story from the aftermath of the war till the 1964 Olympics, which I see as the date when Tokyo was accepted back into the world community. And I wanted to use crime to tell the story. Of course, in that period 1945-64, there were many sensational crimes, but (what interested me) was whether these crimes had any political significance. The Kodaira case, the Teigin case and the Shimoyama case I felt could only have taken place in Tokyo in these years. So from being a Showa Period (1926-89) reconstruction quartet it came to be about the Occupation.
When I first came to Tokyo in 1994, I was writing these books about the Yorkshire Ripper and the initial interest in Kodaira came about as I was writing these books and trying to find out about Tokyo at the same time as a kind of hobby. I'd read Ed Seidensticker's "Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake" and Mark Schreiber's "Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan," which both mention Kodaira, and what struck me was that this was a serial killer whose crimes were very much rooted in the time and place. You can make a political argument about any crime, but basically Kodaira had been a soldier, he'd raped and murdered in China and had medals for it and came back and continued to do what he'd done before. And he was able to do so because of the social and economic conditions of the time, whereby he was catching his victims with promises of food and jobs, which, had there been food and jobs, he wouldn't have been able to do. So I felt this case was a way into that time and place.
What do you think turned Kodaira into a killer?
Before he went into the army, he'd killed (Kodaira bludgeoned to death his Shinto priest father-in-law with a steel club in 1932 and spent eight years in prison) and the army I felt helped him refine his techniques. I don't think the army turned him into what he was; I think he was somebody who benefited from being in the army, was given license to do these things. With Kodaira, a lot of it comes down to sex. He was motivated by the urge for sex and then the killing was almost secondary, as a way to cover up the rapes.
Would you agree that one of the themes in your work is that you're giving a voice to the voiceless?
I'm giving a voice to the victims. In "Occupied City," the very first voices you hear are the voices of the dead, the victims. In all the books — except "The Damned Utd" — the reason I've written about the cases is because I've wanted to put these victims at the front.
Where does your interest in the victims come from?
It really comes from an interest in crime. The time I grew up in West Yorkshire was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper and that did have an effect on me, maybe because at that time I was into Sherlock Holmes and I did really like crime fiction — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, all the American noir. As a 10-year-old, I wanted to be a private detective like Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe. I used to keep the press cuttings from the case from about that age and I had this dream of solving the case.
When I arrived in Japan and began to write "1974," which is about Yorkshire and the '70s, they still talked about Tsutomu Miyazaki (who was sentenced in 1997 for killing four girls and was executed last month). That was one of the first cases in Japan that I tried to look into, and I then tried to transpose that case, in a very kind of strange way, onto Yorkshire and the '70s.
What I realized when I was writing "1977" (the followup to "1974") and through writing about police and prostitutes and the kind of people that get dragged into these inquiries were the political possibilities of crime writing. They're not "whodunits," they're "whydunits." Basically, the question I was trying to answer was, why did the Ripper case occur in Yorkshire? (I wanted to) look at the social and economic conditions and the sexual politics between the way men and women interact. And that very much applies to "Tokyo Year Zero" and the Kodaira case.