David Peace, perhaps best known for The Red Riding Quartet, which was made into a successful TV series here in the UK and The Damned Utd, a fictional biography of Brian Clough which was made into a film, until recently lived in Tokyo. Tokyo Year Zero is the first in a trilogy of novels, the second of which has recently been published. Peace is difficult to categorise as a writer – he has been labelled as a writer of crime fiction, but it is the historical setting(and relatively recent historical setting) of his novels that enable him to explore much larger issues.
Tokyo Year Zero is set in the years immediately following the end of the war in a Japan that is occupied, subdued and devasted (both physically and psychologically). Detective Minami is assigned to the task of solving a double murder. As his investigation progresses it becomes clear that they are hunting a serial killer who has been murdering young women over a number of years. However, the novel is not na conventional whodunnit. The serial killer is identified and arrested relatively early on in the novel. As Minami investigates the additional murders to gather evidence to force a confession from the killer (and so guarantee a death penalty verdict), he uncovers a corruption that is endemic in the police force and society as a whole. He too is implicated. What is portrayed is a society that has lost its moral foundation in its current state of subjugation, a nation of surviv0rs, each trying to recover from the horror of the war and come to terms with a collective and individual guilt. The more everyone tries to escape from the past beneath a series of assumed identities and pay-offs, the more impossible it is to do so. It is this vein of terror (not of the serial killer, but of history and society itself) that runs through this novel.
Peace also subverts the traditional chronology of the detective novel, as the post-war here-and-now is interspersed with extracts from Minami’s war journal, slowly revealing (or at least hinting at) the secrets and atrocities from which the detective is running. And Minami is no flawed, but likeable and moral hero. He is thoroughly dislikeable – a coward without principles, bent on self-preservation without regard to others, teetering on the verge of mental collapse. Writing in The Spectator, Andrew Taylor described it as a “book that travels deep into its very own heart of darkness” and the thematic parallels with Conrad’s novel are unmistakeable and Minami’s own cry of horror is just as loud. It is arguably a novel that could only have been written by someone who has immersed himself in Japanese culture for many years, but has simulktaneously retained an objective distance.