Nishimura is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves through the crowded Tokyo streets, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes even he doesn’t remember the snatch. To him, people are just nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims; he has no family, no friends, no connections . . . But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when his old partner-in-crime reappears and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It should have been easy: break into an apartment, tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of his safe, no-one gets hurt. But the day after the job, Nishimura learns that the old man was a prominent politician – and that he has been brutally murdered. Suddenly, Nishimura finds himself caught in a tangle so tight that even he might not be able to escape.
I must admit to having read very little Japanese crime fiction, but drawn by a cover quote from Natsuo Kirino, the author of the remarkable ‘Out’, I was immediately hooked by this bijou slice of Japanese noir. Centred on the criminal activities of pickpocket, Nishimura, this is a at times shocking, but poignant tale of the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. Nishimura spends his days targeting prosperous looking individuals with his deft pickpocketing skills but then finds himself coerced by a fellow friend and member of the criminal fraternity into a seemingly straightforward house invasion that leads to murder. Manipulated by an enigmatic and philosophical crime boss, Kizaki, he finds himself in a desperate situation and is forced to take part in another job that leads himself into great peril. Running alongside this we also see a tentative friendship develop between Nishimura and a young boy who is falling into criminal ways due to the instability of his home life, and this relationship is beautifully captured as Nishimura, himself a criminal, attempts to liberate his protege from a life of crime.
This book is wonderful example of less being so much more with its brevity of narrative style and the compact nature of its prose. Despite its sparseness of style it captures all the salient details of location and atmosphere of everyday life in Tokyo, and the grim human experiences that lurk beneath this quintessentially modern metropolis. The characterisation is pitch perfect as Nishimura is raised from the status of common thief to an all to human protagonist, attempting to rescue the young boy and also by the references to Saeko, a former lover, whose absence impacts strongly on Nishimura’s psyche. The crime boss, Kizaki, is a debonair yet utterly ruthless man, who thinks nothing of using others as sacrificial pawns and using a high degree of reason and intelligence to achieve his aims.
A slim but ultimately satisfying read that rises above a simple tag of crime thriller into an altogether more literary exploration of the criminal mind that challenges the reader’s assumptions at every turn. A tale of morality and redemption in equal measure. and an author that I will certainly return to in the future.
Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. In 2002, he won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, and in 2005 he won the Akutagawa prize for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan’s most important literary award, is his first novel to be published in English.
Read a review at Eurocrime here: eurocrime.co.uk/reviews/The_Thief.html
(With thanks to Constable Robinson for the advance reading copy)