by Hideo Yokoyama, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, 656 pages, published by Riverrun
I have to admit that nearly 300 pages into the 2012 million selling “Japanese crime phenomenon”, Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, I nearly gave up on it. Something I very rarely do with books. It’s a long, slow paced story littered with hard to remember Japanese names that all sound the same. Which makes it difficult to follow at times. However, I persevered, and by the end of the book was very glad that I had. In my humble opinion Six Four has to be one of the best crime books I have read in a long time. Just not for the reasons I thought it would be.
Six Four opens with the protagonist, Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective turned police press director, identifying the remains of a young girl. He is praying that it isn’t his own daughter, Ayumi, who a couple of months earlier ran away from home following a family dispute that not even Mikami fully understands. The remains turn out not to be Ayumi, which gives Minako, his now emotionally distant wife, renewed hope that the silent phone calls they have been receiving are from their daughter after all. A belief that Mikami doesn’t necessarily share.
As events unfold it becomes clear that Mikami’s life at work is just as stressful as his home life. Trying to manage relations with a fractious press corps, who want full police disclosure after they were denied the name of a woman involved in a car accident, drives him almost to the point of insanity at times. Further adding to his stress levels the Police Commissioner is planning a visit to the Prefecture where Mikami works. A visit that will mark the fourteenth anniversary of the unsolved kidnapping and murder case known unofficially as Six Four. As Press Director it is Mikami’s job to ensure the visit goes smoothly. Something which seems increasingly unlikely as relations with the press worsen and the threat of a media boycott against the planned visit seems ever more likely.
This makes Mikami question his effectiveness as Press Director. He was a good detective and feels out of place in his new role. In fact Mikami questions lots of things. Why did his wife marry him? Why did his daughter run away? Why has he been placed in this god forsaken job? It is this intense questioning of everything that leads him to focus on the circumstances of the Six Four case. Why was it never solved? What really happened? Who in the police force knows the truth? And so Mikami starts to dig, gradually and methodically uncovering a secret that sits at the heart of the book. A mystery which goes deeper and deeper, higher and higher through the ranks of the police force.
Six Four is a book filled with mysteries, hidden truths that always seem to be just out of Mikami’s reach. But it isn’t a traditional crime novel. For a large portion of the book the expectant, seasoned crime reader will think there isn’t a whole lot going on. Some readers have complained there is too much detail about the relationship between the press and the police. Another complaint levelled at the book is that for a crime novel there isn’t a whole lot of crime happening. Six Four’s mysteries are firmly rooted in the past. There isn’t any direct threat to the hero’s life. It could be argued there isn’t even a villain for the majority of the book (although Mikami’s adversary, Futawatari comes pretty close.) No wonder there have been such mixed reviews from readers.
So why do I rate Six Four so highly? For the same reason I rated Stieg Larsson’s final book in his Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, so highly. Like that book Six Four has been so cleverly constructed I can only sit back and admire it with authorial envy.
Six Four deals with Revenge and questions of Loyalty. However, its main theme is Truth. As Press Director, Mikami spends most of the book trying to haggle with the press over how much of the truth he is allowed to disseminate to them. He is a keeper of facts, a guardian of information. As a former detective now seeking to uncover the truth behind the Six Four case, he is a seeker of facts. A psychological dichotomy which only adds to Mikami’s troubled mind.
Because Six Four is written in the third person and only from Mikami’s viewpoint, his search for the truth is also the reader’s. Yokoyama employs a tight, almost voyeuristic narrative view to great effect. The reader is tied up with the machinations of Mikami dealing with the press just as much as they are frustrated at not readily discovering new information about the Six Four case. They share Mikami’s increasing frustration and become almost addicted to his constant pondering over everything.
So much so that when the novel moves into its final stages, and the truth and ultimate twist is finally revealed, there is little chance that the reader will have been able to spot it. Endings to books have to be fair. There have to be adequate clues sprinkled throughout. And Yokoyama has provided plenty of breadcrumbs, plenty of snippets that when viewed with hindsight are perfect setups for the final reveal. It’s just that the reader, like Mikami, was unable to see what was happening. They were unable to work out what was important and what wasn’t. And I like that. A lot.
Six Four excels in other ways. As a character Mikami is addictive to listen to. A little like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Then there is Mikami’s search for his missing daughter, which mirrors the fate of the Six Four victim’s father, a man called Amamiya. Who represents possible psychological and maybe even marital death for Mikami if he can’t come to terms with his own daughter’s disappearance and his wife’s sadness over it. This is a more traditional crime fiction convention which works well at ramping up tension throughout.
Some reviewers talk of how the ending is worth the wait. And I agree. It is. Ultimately though I have one criticism of Six Four. Most crime and thriller novels wait until the end to reveal whodunnit, or whether the villain will be caught. Six Four is no different. However, because it is a long book, with seemingly little happening in the early stages, a lot of readers have been put off by this and stopped reading (I nearly did). As an author that is the worst outcome for your book. I think that Yokoyama could easily have stripped his book down in length and still achieved the desired effect.
Other than that I have no hesitation in placing it on my list of highly recommended reads.