Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: young blond beauty goes missing in a foreign country.
The woman at the heart of Richard Lloyd Parry’s “People Who Eat Darkness” is Lucie Blackman, who hailed from the U.K. and disappeared in Tokyo in 2000 at age 21.
It’s clear from the beginning, as with every missing-blonde story, that the woman in question is dead. Blackman’s case offers an intriguing twist: She was working as a hostess in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, known for its nightlife.
Though the hostesses’ jobs weren’t sexual in nature -- the women were meant to provide conversation and encourage Japanese businessmen to buy alcohol -- they were part of the so-called “water trade,” the adult entertainment industry. Lloyd Parry interviews patrons, club owners and other hostesses and writes convincingly about the world Blackman inhabited before she vanished.
The hostesses also set up dinner dates, or “dohan,” outside the club, which were required for continued employment. Blackman was vulnerable because she didn’t have enough dohan lined up. She wasn’t in a position to turn anyone down, including the man who killed her.
The Tokyo police began the hunt for Blackman tardily, bungled an opportunity to arrest her killer and found her body so late that crucial physical evidence was gone. Lloyd Parry’s straightforward reporting underscores their Keystone Kops-like incompetence more than any heated invective could have done.
Lloyd Parry, the Times of London’s Tokyo bureau chief, is at his strongest dissecting the police’s initial response: inactivity. He provides valuable insight on the media maneuvering as well. It’s revealing that at the first press conference Tim Blackman gave about his missing daughter, Lloyd Parry remembers thinking something was off and realizing what it was: Blackman wasn’t wearing socks.
This detail hints at later ways Tim Blackman deviated from the accepted behavior of the parent of a missing child. He didn’t seem sad enough; worse, he seemed to enjoy the attention.
Lloyd Parry deconstructs the media narrative expertly, so it’s strange that he doesn’t note the calculus of how newspaper editors decide which missing women are worth covering.
Blackman’s probable killer had a swath of rape victims, though he’d killed only one before Blackman disappeared. The man, Joji Obara, videotaped himself raping women he’d drugged into unconsciousness.
He’d been doing it for years, targeting the women no one cared about: ugly Japanese women (“I like ugly play with an ugly girl,” Lloyd Parry quotes Obara as saying) and foreigners. Had he not underestimated the importance of an attractive missing blonde to the Western media, he would probably still be free.
In fact, it seems Obara understood even better than Lloyd Parry the calculus of the worthwhile victim. The author seems strangely incurious about the Japanese women Obara raped; very little on them appears in the book. Perhaps Lloyd Parry did the chilling evaluation about what would sell: the dead blond woman, not the living Japanese victims.
Blackman herself is absent from most of the book, though she provides the narrative engine. She dies less than halfway through and Lloyd Parry gives the rest of the story over to the various forces that shape her accused murderer’s fate. By the end, I wondered how many dead blond enigmas we really need.
“People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo -- and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up” is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the U.S. and Vintage in the U.K. (454 pages, $16, 8.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Elizabeth Lopatto is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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