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Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of SIX FOUR by Hideo Yokoyama

4 Stars
This novel was a huge seller in Japan and is the first of Yokoyama’s to be translated into English.

Six Four is the code name for a fourteen-year-old cold case, the kidnapping and murder of a 7-year-old girl named Shoko.  Yoshinobu Mikami, press director for the Profecture D police, is charged with organizing a visit by the police commissioner to Shoko’s family.  The ostensible reason of the visit is to publicize a renewed effort to solve the case, but Mikami discovers there is a hidden agenda.  Mikami, who was a detective for most of his career and had some involvement in the investigation, begins revisiting the Six Four case.  In the process, as he faces professional crises with the press, he uncovers police cover-ups and inadvertently becomes involved in police department machinations and power plays.  At the same time, he is dealing with the disappearance of Ayumi, his teenaged daughter, who has run away from home. 

Though there is a case to solve, this is not a typical police procedural or crime thriller.  Much of the focus is on Mikami’s investigation into the real reason for the commissioner’s visit and on his difficulties with the media outlets who feel that Mikami and the three other members of the Media Relations department are not sufficiently forthcoming with information about various cases.  Surprisingly, I found myself being drawn into the infighting and bureaucratic maneuverings. 

Mikami is an interesting protagonist.  He is conflicted since his transfer to Media Relations was unwelcomed, and he hopes to someday return to Criminal Investigations where apparently he distinguished himself.  He has much less success in his current position and finds himself being manipulated by officers who have little respect for it and want to use him for their own purposes.  He must tread carefully or jeopardize his return to his coveted role of detective. 

And then there’s his personal life.  Mikami’s wife has become withdrawn after Ayumi’s disappearance three months earlier.  Mikami also feels responsible for his daughter’s unhappiness.  She inherited her looks from her father rather than from her beautiful mother; though “Ayumi’s looks were no different to those of any other normal girl, the kind you saw everywhere,” she suffers from dysmorphophobia and hates her resemblance to her father.  He realizes that he has not really made much effort to understand his wife and daughter:  “A gentle wife who kept to herself.  A daughter, spoiled but kind at heart.  He’d been quick to label them for whatever reason, then leave the classification unchecked, unaltered, as five, then ten years had gone by.  Had he known Ayumi at all?”

Mikami is not naturally an introspective person, but he is forced to do some self-examination.  As a result, he comes to some realizations and grows and changes.  Since his thoughts are so thoroughly detailed, his character change is totally convincing.  The ability to portray a dynamic character realistically is always an indication of good writing.

The book is a great immersion in Japanese culture.  The hierarchical nature of Japanese society is amply obvious as is the concern to avoid losing face.  The tradition of buying rice crackers as a home-visiting gift was new to me.  Even the role of women in Japanese society is touched on. 

The relationship between police and media is examined in considerable detail.  I wouldn’t have thought the subject to be especially interesting, but it proved to be.  The point of view of each side in the debate is given.  Perhaps the issue of freedom of the press has become more important because of events in the U.S. since the election of Trump?

There is suspense throughout:  Will Ayumi be found?  Will Mikami be able to solve the mystery surrounding the commissioner’s visit?  Will Mikami be able to convince Shoko’s father to accept a visit from the commissioner?  Will the conflict with the media be resolved in time or will Mikami be held responsible for a media boycott of the visit?  Will Mikami be transferred back to Criminal Investigations or will his actions and his confrontations with certain officials ruin his chances?  Can the cold case be solved before the looming statute of limitations comes into effect?  There are several twists and turns and the ending comes as a surprise, though a totally credible one.  There are some loose ends, but they are appropriate. 

This book requires a patient, intelligent reader.  Non-Japanese readers may find some difficulty with the many “M” names (Mikami, Mizuki Murakushi, Minako, Mikumo, Matsuoka, Meikawa, etc,) and the various positions within the police force.  But one’s patience will be rewarded. 

The novel is complex and demanding and totally immersive.  It was first published in Japan in 2012 in two volumes, so it is not just dense, but lengthy as well.  It is definitely recommended to anyone willing to expand his/her reading horizons.