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March 21, 2010

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Shinto crime writing

WHEN I started David Peace's new novel, I had absolutely no idea of what was going on. The opening line: "In the occupied city, you are a writer and you are running." As it turns out, the idea of running is endlessly, mind-numbingly repeated and reworked in this novel.

A writer is running, clutching the manuscript of a book that refuses to be written, toward the Black Gate of Tokyo, where something of an occult nature is going on. Both the reader and the fictional writer are tightly wound in something intensely claustrophobic. I felt as if I were lost, not in Tokyo, but in a particular kind of pulp fiction fantasy.

Mercifully, it soon became apparent that "Occupied City" is an extraordinary and highly original crime novel, based on a notorious true-life poisoning of bank workers in occupied Tokyo in 1948. Peace's high aim is to combine something of the conventions and rhythms of traditional Shinto storytelling with an investigation of the killings, as well as what lay behind them.

In real life (as in the novel) a watercolor painter, Sadamichi Hirasawa, was convicted of the murders and sentenced to be hanged, although he lived on in prison until 1987 when he finally died of natural causes at age 95. Efforts are still being made to clear his name and it seems highly unlikely he was guilty.

The facts of the case are that on January 26, 1948, a man entered the Teikoku Bank and poisoned 16 people, including the entire staff and children of the caretaker. The murderer pretended to be a Dr Yamaguchi, come to immunize the victims against dysentery, which he claimed had been found in the area. He presented a card proclaiming himself "Technical Officer, Ministry of Health and Welfare," and added that he was working under the guidance of the Americans.

He said that a Lieutenant Parker would soon be along to check the work had been carried out thoroughly. All 16 victims were induced to take, simultaneously, a deadly poison measured through pipettes into teacups, a procedure that Yamaguchi first demonstrated calmly, stressing how important it was to take the liquid on the tongue.

The only four survivors reported that their poisoner seemed familiar with medicine and medical procedure. In other words, he was probably not a watercolor painter.

The motive remains hazy; only a relatively small amount of money was stolen. The entire Tokyo detective force was mobilized to try to find the killer. Newspapers also put their best reporters to work.

In "Occupied City," Peace draws on a theory that apparently intrigued some newspapers and police officers at the time: he connects the killer to the so-called Unit 731, the infamous Japanese biological weapons division that functioned in northeastern China.

The unit, still a subject of embarrassment in Japan, performed vivisections without anesthesia, bred plague-infected rats to spread disease in China, experimented with anthrax bombs and tested the effectiveness of poisons on prisoners.

It was a huge operation, and after the war ended, many of the 750 doctors it employed were out of work, destitute and shunned. Already a source of contention during the war, the unit posed a very tricky problem for the occupying Americans, who knew what had been going on long before the Japanese surrendered.

"Occupied City" provides testimony from 12 participants in the case, including a survivor, a reporter, a former gangster, two detectives, the convicted man and even the imagined real killer.

These are the bare bones of the story. But they suggest nothing of the highly stylized and fresh approach of Peace's book, which combines the fragmented technique of "Rashomon" with a traditional Japanese storytelling style involving occult seances, and which draws on influences from sources as diverse as Benjamin Britten and the poetry of Paul Celan. It is a truly remarkable work, hugely daring, utterly irresistible, deeply serious and unlike anything I have ever read.


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