A stirring journey into Japan’s humiliated postwar society

David Peace has reinvented the crime novel. In “Tokyo, New City,” he explores a society of victors and vanquished. It is a novel full of hardship – and tenderness.

A man run over by a train on the outskirts of Tokyo; a body shredded into pieces of tissue, smashed to splinters of bone: this is how David Peace begins his third novel about Tokyo and Japan in the post-World War II era. “Tokyo, New City” is not a straightforward crime novel – the story feels like an exploratory journey into the mindset of a destroyed and humiliated country and its people.

It also deals with an unsolved criminal case with political implications. Above all, it explores a city of victors and vanquished, of Cold Warriors and traditionalists who have lost their pride and face. It is a novel full of hardships and full of tenderness.

David Peace is considered by critics to be an author who has reinvented the crime novel. He became known as the author of four concrete-hard crime novels about northern England in the seventies and eighties. At that time, a series of murders held the region captive; the perpetrator was notorious as the “Yorkshire Ripper.”

Even in these stories, Peace was more concerned with the atmosphere of northern England, with the anxiety that overcame the police officers at the sites where bodies were found, with the way men and women treated each other, with the pubs where the investigators drowned their fatigue. All of this shaped the books at least as much as the hunt for a brutal, psychopathic killer.

Military, secret services and the yakuza
With “GB 1984,” the final volume in the series, Peace tapped into the sphere of the political. The miners’ strike, with the legendary Arthur Scargill as a union leader and adversary of conservative-liberal Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, set the stage for a political intrigue, a power struggle whose combatants used conspiratorial and criminal methods.

And now post-war Japan: a society whose norms are only recognizable in remnants; an occupying power with its own self-importantly celebrated code of values; a situation in which a wide variety of forces are trying to operate, military, secret services, Japanese organized crime in the form of the yakuza, and the kind of lonely lone wolves that wars seem to produce.

Who had the strongest interest in the death of the man on the railroad track, the president of the National Railway Company named Sadanori Shimoyama? The incident has gone down in Japanese postwar history as the “Shimoyama Incident.” Combined with two other railroad accidents attributed to communist sabotage, anti-communist sentiment emerged in Japan in 1949, paving the political way for an economic liberal course.

Three attempts at enlightenment
Peace sets out three times to solve the case: in 1949, Tokyo-based American investigator Harry Sweeney tries to find the perpetrator or perpetrators, and any convincing motive at all for Shimoyama’s death. Was it revenge for the dismissal of 30000 railroad workers, for which the gentle, so not at all hard market thinking Shimoyama was responsible? Was it an intrigue masterminded by Russian Communists to inflame the humiliated Japanese and target the Americans? Or an artfully crafted trap by the occupiers’ intelligence agents to cold-shoulder the leftist unionists among the railroad workers? In any case, Sweeney fails.

The second attempt to solve the mystery: 1964. A Japanese private detective, addicted to Chinese wine and melancholy, is supposed to find a missing Japanese crime writer. He had written a mysterious manuscript about the Shimoyama case and then apparently suffered a mental breakdown. Murota Hideki fails, driven by his paranoia, fantasies, and delusions.

The third attempt, 1988: Donald Reichenbach, an American with a dark, secret service past, comes back to Tokyo, his dream city. He was there in 1949 when the president of the railroad company was kidnapped and killed. What happened then has never left Reichenbach’s mind.

A thriller with enormous traction
Peace weaves textures of memories and feelings, of traditions and ideas, of love for a foreign culture, and an insistence on traditions in all three parts. He builds dense scenery, whether describing how American deals with his Japanese investigator colleague or how a Japanese private detective solves adultery on the side.

The whole novel has nothing of a thriller, telling the story from the crime to the finale with enormous traction, even though it recently made it to number one on the crime fiction bestseller list. Rather, “Tokyo, New City” feels as if David Peace, who has lived in Tokyo for many years, wrote this novel with an ink brush, with a fine sense of every mark, every glimmer of light, every shadow, and an almost lyrical sense of the places where it is decided how the story will continue. And with a sense for strangeness in feeling and thinking, in behavior and in being, which is preserved and yet becomes understandable.