Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mystery Book Review: Occupied City by David Peace

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Occupied City by David Peace. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Occupied City by David Peace

by
The Tokyo Trilogy

Knopf (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-307-26375-4 (0307263754)
ISBN-13: 978-0-307-26375-9 (9780307263759)
Publication Date: February 2010
List Price: $25.95

Review: Based on a true crime committed in 1948 Tokyo, Occupied City by David Peace is for the most part a fascinating retelling of the circumstances surrounding that fateful day when 12 innocent people lost their lives in a bank.

A man posing as a health inspector enters the Teikoku Bank in Tokyo just before closing and announces that its employees have been exposed to dysentery. He possesses an antidote, but they must hurry. The "treatment" is really a fast-acting poison, which kills 12 of the employees and seriously injures 4 others. The man makes off with a substantial sum of money. Hirasawa Sadamichi is arrested and two years later convicted of the murders, attempted murders, and robbery, based in large part on a confession, which he subsequently recants. Sentenced to be hung for his crimes, a campaign to clear his name kept his appeal process going until his death in jail in 1987.

Occupied City consists of twelve "candles" or chapters, each told from a different perspective by a fictional character associated in some way -- sometimes quite tangentially -- with the crime. It can be an exceptionally challenging book to read; fully half the "candles" are written in an atypical, non-narrative manner, including the first one, which is written from the perspective of the victims -- but does provide a foundation for what is to follow. Examples of other chapters include passages from the investigating detective's notebook (written as one long paragraph per entry), letters from an American medical officer to both his wife and commander detailing his investigation into the potential development of biological weapons by the Japanese during the war, newspaper articles and commentary written by a journalist covering the story and its aftermath, and towards the end, chapters each from the man convicted of the crime and someone identified only as "the Killer".

Far more of a literary novel than a mystery, some might be tempted to call Occupied City a tour de force based on its unusual approach to storytelling ... but no doubt many others will be puzzled, if not put off by it. It may help to read the chapters out of sequence; with the exception of the first and the last few chapters, there doesn't seem to be any specific order to the rest, though the author may find it objectionable to read it in this way, tampering with the art, as it were. Still, it is possible to skip ahead if one chapter appears to be particularly daunting, then return to it later; the overall experience is worth the effort.

Special thanks to Random House for providing an ARC of Occupied City for this review.

Review Copyright © 2010 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved

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Synopsis (from the publisher): A fierce, exquisitely dark novel that plunges us into post–World War II Occupied Japan in a Rashomon-like retelling of a mass poisoning (based on an actual event), its aftermath, and the hidden wartime atrocities that led to the crime.

On January 26, 1948, a man identifying himself as a public health official arrives at a bank in Tokyo. There has been an outbreak of dysentery in the neighborhood, he explains, and he has been assigned by Occupation authorities to treat everyone who might have been exposed to the disease. Soon after drinking the medicine he administers, twelve employees are dead, four are unconscious, and the “official” has fled ...

Twelve voices tell the story of the murder from different perspectives. One of the victims speaks, for all the victims, from the grave. We read the increasingly mad notes of one of the case detectives, the desperate letters of an American occupier, the testimony of a traumatized survivor. We meet a journalist, a gangster-turned-businessman, an “occult detective,” a Soviet soldier, a well-known painter. Each voice enlarges and deepens the portrait of a city and a people making their way out of a war-induced hell.

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