Review: Tokyo by Mo Hayder

Chris Petit faces up to new horrors from Mo Hayder

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.


Chris Petit

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Crime: Jan 29

Matthew Lewin on Night Fall | The Broker | The Master of Knots | State of Fear

Matthew Lewin

29, Jan, 2005 @1:34 AM

John Mullan on Pope's Dunciad

Rereading: 'Fools rush into my head, and so I write,' Alexander Pope declared. His mock-epic poem The Dunciad was inspired not just by revenge, but also, John Mullan argues, by the folly it appears to deplore

John Mullan

09, May, 2008 @11:15 PM

Article image
Review: Extreme Measures by Martin Brookes

Steven Rose is fascinated by Extreme Measures, Martin Brookes's life of the father of eugenics, Francis Galton.

Steven Rose

18, Sep, 2004 @12:20 AM

The literary generation of 1979

Philip Hensher looks back at 1979 and a generation of novelists peering into the gloom

Philip Hensher

10, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Top writers choose their perfect crime
Crime fiction is now the UK’s bestselling genre. So which crime novels should everyone read? We asked the writers who know ...

28, Apr, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
A prize for thrillers with no violence against women? That’s not progressive
Ignoring brutality may sound like a good idea but it won’t make it go away – we should challenge prejudice, not celebrate it

Sophie Hannah

31, Jan, 2018 @1:38 PM

Article image
Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello review – an Italian thriller lost in translation
Her father’s mental illness informs the author’s coming-of-age crime novel, but tension peters away

Joanna Briscoe

24, Aug, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
The best recent crime novels – review roundup
Soot by Andrew Martin; The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan; The Lying Game by Ruth Ware; Give Me the Child by Mel McGrath; Yesterday by Felicia Yap

Laura Wilson

25, Aug, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Readers’ books of the year 2016
The critics had their say, now it’s time for readers to pick their books of the year – from diaries to dictionaries and emperors to existentialists

31, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Trespasser by Tana French review – a smart, twisty crime novel
The interrogation scenes in the Dublin Murder Squad could rival those of John le Carré

Mark Lawson

07, Oct, 2016 @11:00 AM