Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) comes garlanded with expectations: it sold a million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher; and Red Riding quartet author David Peace, no less, calls it “simply one of the best crime novels I have ever read”.
The premise is gripping: in 1989, a seven-year-old girl was abducted and murdered, her kidnapper escaping with the 20m yen ransom. The culprit has never been found. Fourteen years later, an anomaly in the case is discovered by police press director Yoshinobu Mikami, setting off a sequence of events he never expected.
It opens in dramatic fashion, as Mikami identifies the corpse of a teenage girl – his own daughter has been missing for weeks after a mental breakdown – but the reality of Six Four is quite at odds with the way it’s being pitched. It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.
The old kidnapping case occupies Mikami a great deal: he’s preparing the press for a visit from the commissioner general in Tokyo. The commissioner, who has an almost god-like importance, will be visiting the bereaved family of the girl to pay his respects, and to reinforce the police’s intention “never to let violent crime go unpunished” before the statute of limitations on the case comes into play. Mikami, a detective at the time of the kidnapping, is tasked with persuading the reluctant father to acquiesce to the visit, as well as pinning the media down over the questions they can ask.
He’s also dealing with a belligerent local press over the issue of anonymous reporting: they want to know the name of a woman who knocked down a pensioner; he’s been told to keep it anonymous, because she’s eight months pregnant. And his own family life is crumbling, as he and his wife approach their daughter’s disappearance in different ways.
Mikami is pulled in all directions and it’s becoming increasingly unclear even to him where his allegiances lie. And when he discovers an appalling police cover-up in relation to the Six Four case, things start to fall apart as he tries to stay ahead of a press corps swiftly turning into a lynch mob. “Hands hit desks in their hundreds; everyone in the room got to their feet. The floor started to rumble. The air erupted in a storm of shouts.”
Over its 600-odd pages, Six Four is the slowest of slow-burn crime novels. It takes the classic elements of the genre but steers decisively away from putting them together in the usual way, instead providing a layered insight into internal police politics. At times, it is too easy to get lost in the morass of detail and characters and passionate concerns over issues it is hard to get worked up over. But the twist and the pay-off are worth the wait, and if the slightly misleading packaging means more people give this unique addition to the genre a try, then so much the better.
- Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (Quercus Publishing, £16.99). To order a copy for £12.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
- This article was amended on 2 March 2016 to add the name of the book’s translator