Written by Fuminori Nakamura —The Kenzaburō Ōe Prize is regarded as one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, even though it has only been around since 2006. The winner doesn’t get a cash prize, rather the honour of having their novel translated into other languages. In 2010, Nakamura was the recipient of the award for his crime fiction novel Suri, meaning ‘pickpocket’. Rights to the novel have been picked up by Soho Press in the US and Corsair here in the UK where it has been translated as The Thief.
Nishimura is a highly skilled pickpocket who dresses in tailored suits and glides around the streets and transport network of Tokyo, targeting his marks then lifting their wallets. With so many victims he works on instinct and automatically steals from people – they don’t register what’s happened, and he doesn’t either. He works alone and has no connections but his past is about to revisit him in the form of Ishikawa, a partner from his early days learning his trade, who suddenly reappears and makes him an offer he can’t turn down. Even though he knows it will take him outside his comfort zone and has the potential to get him killed.
Tying up an old man and emptying his safe sounds pretty simple, but Nishimura is about to discover that it’s anything but. It turns out the victim was a prominent politician and within hours of the robbery his body is found – brutally murdered. Nishimura realises he’s got himself involved with people who won’t just let him walk away.
The first thing you notice about our protagonist is that he prefers to work alone and remain anonymous, even from the reader. It’s not from Nishimura that we learn his name. He’s incredibly observant, but in his role as narrator we only see his world as he wants us to see it, so you don’t get a real feel for the environment. Take out the Japanese names and the odd word that can’t be translated into English and you could be anywhere in the world. Besides being swift and not taking unnecessary risks, he makes himself look as inconspicuous as possible. This is what keeps him safe and makes him good at what he does.
Nishimura’s narrative begins after the robbery. He knows they’re going to come for him and he’s constantly checking to see if he’s being watched, so when they do appear with the offer of another job, it’s not a surprise to him or the reader. You’re constantly aware that danger may be lurking around every street corner and that sense of foreboding never dissipates. It simply grows with the turn of every page. Having chosen to remain in Tokyo he makes his second mistake, forming a relationship of sorts with a prostitute and her son – a boy in whom he sees as an image of himself in the early days. He tries to teach the child not to make the mistakes he’s made, but in doing so he’s created a weakness that can be manipulated.
Japanese crime fiction is not something we’re overly familiar with here at CFL but Nakamura is a writer who has certainly caught our attention. The Thief is a psychological thriller that will grip your imagination from the very first page.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars