Monday, March 26, 2012

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

Soho Press, 2012
originally published as Suri, 2009
translated by Satako Izumo and Stephen Coates
211 pp
(hard cover ed.)

It's always interesting to see how different writers around the world do crime fiction; recently I reviewed two books by Paulus Hochgatterer in which I  noted the idea that perhaps it's time to reconsider my own approach to reading in this genre.  If ever there was a case for this idea to be put into practice, it's here in this book, The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura.  Glancing around at reviews after setting down my own thoughts, many people in cyberspace noted the lack of action or the lack of a compelling hook to draw the reader in and keep him or her interested.  Not so, I counter... it seems a shame that readers get stuck on particular formats or (let's get real here) similar formulaic constructions in their crime fiction reading.  Is there a lack of open-mindedness going on or what's the story? If it doesn't read like a "normal" mystery, suspense or crime story, is it any less readable or enjoyable? Or is it that readers are getting lazy and don't want to read books that are designed to make you read between the lines?

The Thief is a very good read, intensely satisfying with a great deal of psychological depth to go along with the crime elements of the novel. The central character is a pickpocket named Nishimura (whose name is only stated once) who has sharpened his skills to an elite level over the years to the point where he can easily remove a wallet, sift through its contents and sometimes return it to its owner, all without the victim's knowledge. He takes money and leaves the rest of the contents, always clever enough to avoid holding onto anything that would attract police attention.  He plies his trade in crowded places,  subways, trains, etc., possessing an uncanny ability to blend in well no matter where he finds himself; conversely, he lives anonymously and has very few human ties.  He had a girlfriend once, and he has a friend, Ishikawa, who was wanted in connection with fraud.  Avoiding the warrant issued for his arrest, Ishikawa left for the Phillipines, Pakistan (where he officially "died")  and Kenya before returning to Japan to assume the identity of a dead man.  Complicating matters, our narrator becomes involved with a mother and son whom he first meets in a supermarket, where they make an inept attempt at stealing food.  Even though he is a complete loner, he begins to feel a bond with the boy, whose path he crosses more than once since the boy is often sent out on shoplifting missions by his mother, a prostitute and drug addict.

With Ishikawa back in Tokyo, the narrator is drawn into the darkest circle of Tokyo's underworld scene, where he comes across a sociopathic crime boss for whom power seems to be the acme of earthly existence. He gets caught up in a home robbery which goes very badly, not solely  for the owner of the item the narrator and his cohorts are recruited to steal, but also for some of the criminals involved.  As a result of his participation, the narrator finds himself in an impossible situation with an untenable outcome:  either he faces a nearly-impossible challenge of his criminal lifetime or he loses the one valuable thing he has.

While the crime elements are all neatly in place in this book, it works on a deeper level as well, touching on the notions of psychological and social isolation (ongoing themes in many other Japanese crime novels as well as literary fiction),  as well as the machinations of power and fate. Always present in the narrator's life is a tower, looming ahead, just out of his reach; a metaphorical construct quite possibly relating to a life he might once have had, although its meaning is really up to the reader's interpretation. 

The Thief is an intense read, although it may disappoint some readers because of its lack of clear-cut standard formulations to which people have become accustomed in their crime fiction.  There is a wonderful "story-within-a-story" segment within the novel dealing with both power and fate, turning the reader's attention to issues beyond the crimes committed in this book.  It does take some getting used to, but once you get into it, the author amps up the pace without using any gimmicky literary devices, letting the suspense build until you have to keep turning pages just to find out what's going to happen.

Nakamura's work may not be everyone's thing, but if like myself you aim for intelligent crime fiction that sheds light on what makes people who they are, or that reflects issues that seem to be common among people all over the globe, you might actually enjoy it.  Kudos to Soho for bringing this book to the reading public.


  1. Nancy - What an interesting-sounding book! And you do make a well-taken point that sometimes we have assumptions about what a crime fiction novel "should" be like, and those assumptions sometimes keep us from enjoying excellent crime fiction that is different from our preconceptions.

  2. Thanks, Margot. I'm probably just as guilty but I think my approach to crime fiction will be changing here very quickly.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Harvee. I was so sucked into this book I read it in one sitting.

    2. It sounds like an interesting book.

      I wonder if the same phenomenon was at play when readers read The Devotion of Suspect X, which is more of a psychological thriller than a classical police procedural, although there is a major twist at the end.

      I had to concentrate and kind of force my way through it as it is unconvention, perhaps to Western eyes.

      It also takes up the issue of social isolation and what can happen to an individual who has no personal relationships or any hobbies or interactions outside of work.

      This seems to be a theme of Japanese fiction. Wonder if this is true in Europe or the U.S. I haven't seen it over here.

  4. Hi Yahoo mail
    It is an interesting book. My experience with Japanese crime fiction is that you rarely get a straight-up novel of crime; there are generally a few psychological issues that are brought out and explored. And in reading these books, while the crimes are generally very interesting, they sort of take a backseat to the other issues the author's trying get out. I love them -- they tend to be quirkier than most.

    Thanks for coming by!

  5. I totally agree that this works on a deeper level, and really evokes the idea and texture of isolation brilliantly. When I sat down to write my review I couldn't say I was whole-heartedly sold on the book, but there's a lot to like here.

    1. Hi and thanks for your comment. Lately I've noticed myself looking for crime novels not so cut and dried as most seem to be nowadays.

      I LOVE your blog!


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