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Richard Lloyd Parry, People who eat darkness (Review)

May 23, 2015

ParryDarknessCapeCommenting on my review of Helen Garner’s This house of grief, Ian Darling recommended Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows. I’m ashamed that I rarely follow up the great recommendations I receive here, and I admit that it’s odd that when I did this time it was for a genre I rarely read, true crime. But, I was intrigued because it’s about a crime in Japan, and Japan is a country that I love to visit. Fortunately, Ian didn’t lead me astray. It’s a fascinating book.

I’m not a big reader of crime, in fiction or non-fiction form, but I have read a small number of true crime books over the years, starting, long ago, with Truman Capote’s In cold blood. True crime books vary in emphasis, but the ones that attract me are those that throw light on character and society. This is certainly the case with Parry’s People who eat darkness which tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old English woman who went missing in Tokyo in the summer of 2000 and whose remains were found that winter. Parry writes early in the book that “the story was familiar enough – girl missing: body found: man charged – but … it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments, that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell”.

And so Parry attempts to answer these questions. In so doing he covers a lot of ground. He gives us biographies of both Lucie and the man convicted of killing her, Joji Obara; he exposes Japanese discrimination against Koreans; he explains the role of “hostesses” in modern Japanese culture; he explores Japanese policing and the wider justice system; he looks at the media; and he tells the story of the devastating impact of the murder on Lucie’s family. He’s a good writer and tells it well, but I felt we didn’t need as much of Lucie’s biography as he gave. We needed to know a little about her, of course – including why she was in Japan working as a hostess in Roppongi – but, while it was relevant to delve into Obara’s life, I did wonder about the relevance of telling us about, for example, Lucie’s various friends and earlier boyfriends. Did he include all this to balance out the space he was giving to the perpetrator? Why should Obara get more airplay, after all? The victim is often invisible enough. Still, it’s a long book and could have been tightened a little in this area.

However, this is a minor niggle, because Parry has written a compelling story. I must say that I feel uncomfortable using the word “story” for such a devastating event, and even more uncomfortable calling it “compelling”, but I can’t think of any alternative language, so will just have to continue. What makes it compelling is that this is a crime story that departed the usual scripts. Parry analyses the hows and whys of these departures.

“conquest play”

The first “script relates to the murder: it was not, it seems, premeditated but a date-rape (or, “conquest play” as the perpetrator so chillingly called it) that went terribly wrong. Obara had been practising for many years his perverted idea of “conquest play” in which he invited (or lured) women to spend time with him, during which he would sedate them with chloroform or date-rape drugs to enable him to carry out sexual acts. His behaviour had resulted in the death, in 1992, of an Australian woman Carita Ridgeway, but her death had not been recognised as a “murder”. This, together with the failure of the police to follow up a number of complaints about Obara, meant that Lucie was the next unlucky one to not survive Obara’s gruesome idea of “play”. Obara, though, argued to the end that she died of a self-administered overdose.

“not Japanese”

The next “script” is the trial, which did not run the typical Japanese course. Trials in Japan, Parry tells us, “do not resemble fights, battles or sporting events, as the adversarial logic of its laws seems to prescribe, but rather ‘ceremonies’ or ’empty shells’, devoid of even minor disagreements.” However, Obara fought his case vigorously. Parry describes in great detail Japan’s justice system, from policing to the trial and appeals. In Japan, he says, “you are not innocent until proven guilty”. He quotes sociologist David Johnson’s statement that “Prosecutors, like just about everyone in Japan, believe that only the guilty should be charged and that the charged are almost certainly guilty”. Consequently, in Japan, over 90% of those committed to trial are convicted – and a confession is expected. Parry writes:

‘The police are experienced in persuading people to confess,’ a senior detective told me. ‘We make efforts to let the criminal understand the consequences of their actions. We say things like “The sorrow of the victims is truly deep” and “Have you no sense of reflection on what you have done?” But he was not that kind of person. With him those tactics would never work.’ The detective had no difficulty in explaining this quirk in Obara’s character, although he hesitated a little in spelling it out to a foreigner. ‘It is hard for you to understand, perhaps. But it’s because he is . . . not Japanese.’

Obara was of Korean background, you see, and, as Parry details, Japan does not treat its Korean citizens well. Why Obara was the way he was is too complex to discuss here – though Parry makes a good attempt in the book – but from the police point of view, he was “not Japanese” and, once arrested, did not follow the expected path of a charged man.

“the most terrible, terrible event”

Finally, Lucie’s family, rather than presenting “a tight-knit” unit as is so often presented in post-tragedy media reporting, was bitterly divided. Her parents had been divorced many years before her murder, but it was not amicable. Lucie and her two younger siblings, Sophie and Rupert, lived with their mother Jane, while father Tim lived on the Isle of Wight. Lucie was close to her mother, and often kept the peace between her sister and mother. If all this was a sad situation before Lucie died, it was devastating after. The parents could agree on nothing, from how they responded to the media to how they would inter Lucie.

Jane is a more shadowy figure, because she largely kept to herself. Tim though, with Sophie, was active in the search for Lucie, using whatever resources he could garner. Parry clearly got to know him well, and presents to us an intriguing, sometimes contradictory, man, one who said that the death of his daughter was “the most terrible, terrible event of my life” and yet who could say he felt sorry for Obara. Parry writes of this that:

Nothing better caught the complexity of Tim’s own character, his stubborn unorthodoxy, which to me was so likeable and admirable, but which to many people was repellent. Almost on principle, he refused the obvious point of view and the temptations of conventional morality. The high ground was his for the taking, but instead of marching ahead to claim it, he dawdled and skirted around it, finding shades of pathos and ambiguity where others could see only black and white. Onlookers were not merely puzzled by this – they were appalled.

Parry’s portrait of Tim is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, but his picture of a family destroyed is heart-wrenching. Here is Sophie on the day Lucie’s remains were interred:

What was most glaringly obvious was how Lucie’s death had changed the relationships between all of us, and how as a brother and a sister, and a mum and a dad, we were just four strangers sitting round a table.

It’s a desperately sad story, which had longterm ramifications for Lucie’s siblings.

“the drive to pass judgement”

Parry, an English journalist based in Tokyo, spent around ten years researching this book. He attended the very lengthy trial, spoke to family, friends, police and others involved, and read a lot of written material including letters, diaries and emails. He tells the story from a first person point of view, sharing his research process along the way. He is not actively “in” the story like, say, a Helen Garner, but we can discern his hand.

Humans, he writes

are conditioned to look for truth which is singular and focused, hanging for all to see, like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut; but the surface of the shell turned out to be fascinating in itself.

Near the end, he suggests that the “drive to pass judgement was one of the extraordinary effects of the case”. It is to his credit that he manages to steer an astutely observed but even course through unexpected scripts to capture the complexity of its “actors”, and thus of humanity. There is value in reading a book like this.

Richard Lloyd Parry
People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows
London: Jonathan Cape, [2011]
404p. (in print ends.)
ISBN: 9781448155613 (ePub)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn permalink
    May 24, 2015 5:49 am

    Thank you for a wonderful review! I read it a couple of years ago and had totally forgotten that Obara was not Japanese—a crucial point in why those “reflection” tactics of the prosecution didn’t work with him.

    • May 24, 2015 8:44 am

      Thanks Carolyn. I couldn’t remember if you’d read it or not, but suspected you had.

  2. Meg permalink
    May 24, 2015 10:05 am

    I have put it on reserve at my library, so hope to read it soon. I have been to Japan a couple of time, and loved the country and people. My daughter taught English in Hokkaido. I will tell my Japanese friend about the book, but I don’t think she will read it, but my daughter will.

    • May 24, 2015 10:58 am

      That’s right I remember that, Meg. My son taught in Niigata … The closest prefecture to South Korea in fact. Of course, as always, I look forward to your thoughts

  3. Glenys McIver permalink
    May 24, 2015 12:04 pm

    I think the term “true crime” is a bit reductive, with overtones of exploitative books about Chopper Read. I always say I don’t read true crime, but have just read Asne Seierstad’s most significant book One of Us (about the murders in Oslo and on Utoya by Anders Breivik) and heard her speak about it at the Sydney Writers Festival. It’s one of the most profound books I have read for a long time.

    • May 24, 2015 1:29 pm

      Thanks Glenys for commenting. I used to always say I don’t read true crime, but like all good rules I have broken this one on occasion. Probably most categories are reductive to a degree aren’t they? And we can let them put us off those that categories that we don’t think we read.

      One of us sounds interesting. In what way in particular did you find it profound? One of the issues for me in Parry’s book was his exploration of that whole “rush to judgement” business. He saw it as being a particular feature of that case, which occurred in 2000 and the years following, but we who lived through the Lindy Chamberlain “story” know all about that. Nonetheless, I thought Parry’s discussion of this issue (alongside several others) was excellent.

      • Glenys McIver permalink
        May 24, 2015 5:56 pm

        I think that what captured and convinced me in One of Us was the way Seierstad investigates Breveik himself and two in particular of the young Utoya victims, informed by extremely detailed and thorough research but also her sense of the humanity of those she interviewed, including Breivik. She came to her own conclusion about whether he was accountable or not (bad or mad, so to speak) which was the same as the court, and the same as mine, but I believe she was open-minded about what she might find. That made the book far worth reading. It is a heart-rending book, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to read it again, though I know that I would find more if I did, which has affected me deeply.

        • May 24, 2015 7:35 pm

          Thanks Glenys. Sounds like the sort of true crime I would read too. Parry didn’t manage to speak to Obara, though he tried, but he did have some written communication.

  4. May 24, 2015 4:46 pm

    I’ve just put this book on hold at the library! Good review. I always find book reviews a little dull if I haven’t read the book (which is the opposite to movie reviews which I rely on to decide whether or not to see them, strange…) This hooked me in with just enough information to pique my interest without giving too much away. I’ll report back once I’ve finished it.

    • May 24, 2015 5:48 pm

      Haha 36 views, I tend not to read book or movie reviews until after I’ve read or seen it, so I understand where you are coming from.

      • ian darling permalink
        May 25, 2015 7:28 pm

        I am glad you liked the book. I was a bit haunted by it probably because the author was by this tragedy occurring in such a deeply safe but very different society. The complexity of the Korean/Japanese relationship was something that I had known very little about. I think this book shows that “true crime” really does not have to be exploitative or trivialising and at best can explore societies quite deeply.

        • May 25, 2015 10:44 pm

          Thanks Ian. Yes, I totally agree with you re the value of “good” true crime.

          Having some interest in Japan, I did know a little about the Korean-Japanese relationship, including the North Korean action of abducting Japanese people from Japanese beaches, not very long ago.

          Anyhow, thanks for recommending it.

  5. May 27, 2015 3:02 am

    What a fascinating story! It is really interesting to look into how crimes like this play out in different cultures.

    • May 27, 2015 8:23 am

      It is, I agree Stephanie. I particularly found interesting some of the premises of the Japanese justice system.

  6. farmlanebooks permalink
    May 27, 2015 3:34 am

    I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this book! It is one of my favourites. I think the most impressive thing about it is the structure. It could be a fairly ordinary book, but the way he lays it all out is so clever.

    I love what you say about humanity. This book raises many important questions about the way we act. I hope you’ve persuaded a few more people to read this wonderful book!

    • May 27, 2015 8:25 am

      Thanks Jackie. Have you reviewed it? I’ll go look. Yes, I did think about mentioning the structure because it is very well done as you say. You are conscious of what he is doing but it drives you along.

  7. Meg permalink
    June 14, 2015 12:28 pm

    I have just finished reading this book, it is intriguing and haunting. I couldn’t put it down. Parry, certainly puts the reader in the story. What would you do, what do you think? My daughter when living in Chiba reported a peeping tom to the Police. Their response ‘what was her worry, the peeping tom was only looking and not touching her’. I am glad I never read this book before my daughter went to Japan.

    • June 14, 2015 1:52 pm

      So glad you felt the same Meg. It’s a fascinating read on a number of levels. Wow, that’s interesting re your daughter. It rather accords with some of the things he said doesn’t it.

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