by Mo Hayder
361pp, Bantam, £12.99
The Nanking massacre of 1937 is an unlikely starting point for a modern thriller, but with two successful books already (Birdman and The Treatment), Mo Hayder is established enough to go her own way, which in the trammelled world of genre fiction is to be applauded. Although a departure, Tokyo continues the confrontation with horror of her previous work, asserting her place in the new tough school of female writing that depends on successive trumpings in nastiness. And what could be nastier than a massacre? The rapes, the killing competitions and worse are rumoured to exist on a lost film. Further titillation is provided by the tease of a brutality beyond imagination, cruelty elevated to an art form. Hayder's implicit challenge is: how much can you take?
She splits the search for the Nanking film, in 1990 Tokyo, with the journal of a Chinese resident, Shi Chongming, covering the Japanese invasion and massacre. This well-researched documentary account is propelled by the simple mechanism of impending disaster. By 1990 Shi Chongming is a visiting professor at Todai University. Grey, a young female academic from the University of London studying war atrocities, arrives in search of the film. Shi Chongming sees her as a harbinger of a past he is unwilling to confront.
None of the impulses that drives the search is particularly believable, but skilful care is taken to hide the fact. Hayder teases with a flirtatious construction, releasing information piecemeal about her heroine's damaged past. Part of her inheritance is the horror film, in which characters are disposable; and hers hover uneasily, supported by a cast of comic grotesques that provide the book's liveliness, while Grey, self-proclaimed ghost, is obedient to her author's demands.
In an awkward transition, an enigmatic American, Jason, introduces Grey to the world of bar-hostessing and gives her a room in a large, deserted house. Grey's city is defined by an erotic tension, symbolised by the overgrown luxuriance of the house's wild garden, which, like the world in which she finds herself, is coded and arcane. At its best, the novel achieves a semi-magical suspension, a sense of lives in the balance, and at these times Hayder's prose is at its most focused and dreamlike, alert to a febrile sexuality.
With the introduction of the yakuza, and an elixir of life, the story reverts to the traditional suspense of woman-in-jeopardy: we have a 90-year-old gangster in a wheelchair; his fearsome "nurse", whose party trick is literally turning people inside out; and Grey prowling hostile space on behalf of Shi Chongming, in exchange for a look at his atrocity film. What had seemed delicately suspended takes on the determined character of a Brian De Palma movie. Page-turning momentum is sustained by the author's glancing prose and askance observations, but look back and the book falls apart, especially in areas of motivation, including whether Grey's obsession amounts to anything more than a narrative hook or a slice of the History Channel. The Nanking material, deferential in the face of historical atrocity, is no match for Ballard's Shanghai in Empire of the Sun; nor does it add to history in the way of, say, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.
There are signs that Hayder might be ambivalent towards the extremes of her material and its power to degrade. Jason is shown to be a victim of such extremes, and part of Hayder seems to be saying, who but freaks would want to inhabit this world? It's part of the contract with the reader, however, that these misgivings remain coded. More arresting is what she smuggles in beneath the surface: the emotional tugs of loss, for example. It is in these depths, rather than in the breaking of taboos, that she is most interesting. The taboo tackled in Tokyo is routinely grotesque and adds nothing to our understanding of cruelty, while elsewhere Hayder's observant prose works hard to convey the small defining moments that make up life.
It makes her more rewarding than the tough, forensic women whose routine work dominates the world of crime-thrillers. I liked sections of the book very much, without being much bothered with the scaffolding of the story or believing in or caring about the characters. I enjoyed the psychological and geographical spaces they inhabited, and the way Hayder nails what she sees. It was a brave choice, too, to situate her story in a complex cultural context. The writer she reminded me of most was Derek Raymond in The Devil's Home on Leave; there is a shared metaphysical quality, making Hayder quite Jacobean in that her true subject is death and its constant presence in life. What she does best is damage, much of it self-inflicted, and this is the book's strongest theme: the ways in which we haunt ourselves.
Chris Petit's thriller The Human Pool is published by Scribner.