How a Rapist/Murderer Nearly Got Away With It

A young woman vanished and the Tokyo police dithered.

Posted Jun 03, 2012

darkness evil
A really great true crime book is a rare thing, in my experience. Here's one that stands out.

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo—and the Evil that Swallowed Her Up, by Richard Lloyd Parry, is categorized as both true crime and cultural studies, and that may be what broadens and deepens its appeal.

Why this unusual title? I asked author Parry. Here is what he told me:

"I borrowed it (with the author's encouragement) from the title of a Japanese book, 'Yami o guu hitobito', which translates as 'People Who Eat Darkness'. In Japanese, "eating darkness" means flirting with the dark side. I think it's a stranger and more effective phrase in English. In my book, it's intended to be mysterious and suggestive and naggingly obscure -- but there's no specific allusion or key to the title. The important thing is that it refers to "people" in the plural, not just to one person. In different ways, all the characters"eat darkness": the killer, the victim, the family, and everyone who reads the book."

We know from the start, from the subtitle on the book's cover, that a young woman vanished from the streets of Tokyo. Newly arrived from England, she was working as a club hostess. It turned out to be a boring job, but not one in which most of the foreign girls slept with the Japanese men who paid for their conversation. Still, the hostesses were expected to go on dinner dates with their clients in order to earn more or simply keep their jobs. Lucie Blackman went on one of these paid dates less than two months after she arrived in Japan. She never returned.

The narrative is both intense and graphic, without being prurient. The voice of the author is compassionate, curious, fastidious about never jumping to conclusions (there are thorough footnotes included). The plot, which is real life, after all, never lags, though the investigation itself is slow and frustrating. We even learn, late in the narrative, that the accused murderer files a bizarre legal suit against the author Richard Lloyd Parry.

The tale is as compelling as a good novel. I particular enjoyed the exploration of certain aspects of Japanese culture and their police force and legal system's attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses, particularly as described by an expert in the field. Turns out that while Japan has far less crime than other societies, they are also not as experienced in paying attention to and solving certain kinds of mysteries.

Parry, who spent a decade following and researching this book, is the Asian editor and Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and the author of In the Time of Madness. It's a psychological story, too, peering deeply into the psyches of the missing young woman's divorced mother and father, her siblings, her friends, and, finally, her abductor. We grow frustrated by the useless and, sometimes, fraudulent, tips offered by those who would take advantage of the suffering family. Finally, we are witnesses at the trial.

I asked Parry when he knew this story would become a book. He replied, "I think that it was in the early stages of the trial, when the bizarre character of Obara was becoming apparent, that I realised that it would make a book."

I wondered how Parry worked, whether he was a constant reviser. And he responded: "I tend to revise as I am writing, rather than producing a rough draft and working over that. That's why it takes me so long!"

What I especially noticed and appreciated was the subtle tone of the narrative. Not sleazy, not falling into easy generalizations, but, indeed, an exploration. How did the author achieve that?

Throughout the book, I laboured long and hard over the tone. I don't think I exaggerate by saying that voice is the most important thing for me as a writer — content, in some ways, is the easy bit. I'm glad that it seems subtle to you, because that is the effect I strove for. In the end, and despite initial appearances, this is not for most of the time, a story about simple black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, but fascinating shades of grey. I wanted to find a voice which communicated that.

  • Here's a link to 95 minutes of Richard Lloyd Parry reading from, talking about, and answering questions on People Who Eat Darkness at Tokyo's Temple University.  

 Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry