You won’t find Nazis and neo-Nazis in this book. Or sexual humiliation and cruelty. Or lurid, gruesome deaths (which, in Larsson, tend to happen because of the sexual humiliation and cruelty). Or a diminutive, tattooed hacker. The wheels of suspense don’t spin as quickly as they do for Larsson, either (at least not for the first 400 pages).
All of this may sound like a criticism of Six Four but it isn’t. Early buzz among English and American reviewers had me expecting a Japanese version of The Girl Who … instead of what I found: a startlingly unique thriller, meticulously constructed, that devotes more time and attention to the existential sufferings of its main character than to the crime the book is supposed to be about.
Be forewarned, readers: Six Four doesn’t ask for your patience — it demands it. This is a long book, and the slow pace makes it sometimes feel even longer. Yokoyama builds tension and suspense with a careful accumulation of details, not a rapid run up Freytag’s Pyramid.
A publishing sensation in Japan (according to the publisher, more than a million copies have been sold), Six Four follows police media relations chief Yoshinobu Mikami as he wrestles with the anniversary of a daunting cold case that still casts a chill over his department 14 years later. The turmoil of the looming anniversary — and how to spin it — is matched only by Mikami’s inner turmoil as he realizes what no middle-aged man wants to realize: that his entire professional life has been spent chasing his own tail.
Even so, Mikami’s problems seem a bit steeper, graver, than your average gumshoe’s. His relationship with Minako, his wife, is on life support; his relationship with his rebellious daughter Ayumi is even worse (more on that in a moment); his career achievements, which once gave him a sense of purpose, ring hollow. Even on a bad day, Jack Reacher doesn’t have these kinds of problems, for crying out loud. Why the heck is it so necessary? The answer is simple: because Yokoyama is after something more than creating another conventional entry in the thriller genre.
Mikami was once a detective, a pretty good one — collegial, respected, capable of turning up the heat to the right temperature in the interrogation room — but now he’s taken over a post handling police media relations as the National Police Agency (NPA) braces for that humiliating anniversary.
No department is more vital to handling the optics than Media Relations: in fact, the NPA has decided to send its top cop, the commissioner general, to visit the home of the Amamiyas. Their seven-year-old daughter Shoko was kidnapped and murdered even after the family paid a 20-million-yen ransom. The police bungled the pursuit of the killer, who was never brought to justice, and subsequently call the case “six four” — a reference to the year of the kidnapping, which was also the last year of Emperor Hirohito’s life (in the Japanese calendar, not the Gregorian one).
The girl’s mother died of grief, but the father, Yoshio, lives on somehow — Yokoyama paints a harrowing portrait of a man moving through a sad, twilight world. The commissioner’s planned meeting with him will be a grand gesture — as media relations stunts usually are — to show the public that the Amamiyas haven’t been forgotten, that the hunt for the murderer will continue.
It’s Mikami’s job, and his staff’s, to choreograph that meeting and position it in the best light. That seems nearly impossible, and not simply because the police press corps are harder to handle than a hornet’s nest: Amamiya himself doesn’t want the meeting. Why would he? The police failed him. What’s the point of hollow promises and a photo opportunity now? They won’t bring back his daughter or his wife.
Still, Amamiya allows Mikami inside his home to plead for the meeting. When Mikami sets eyes on him — when the front door first opens — he is stunned by how much Amamiya has aged in the past 14 years. “It didn’t seem possible,” Mikami thinks, recalling what Amamiya looked like at the time of the kidnapping. “His hair had turned white and been left to grow. His skin was pale, leaden […] the very essence of an empty shell.”
It is an awkward meeting, and Mikami leaves Amamiya without accomplishing anything. At home, his own house is just as quiet and empty even though he shares it with another person. He and Minako don’t know where Ayumi is. Their daughter is a troubled teen who has either run away or been kidnapped (though the former seems more likely — in flashbacks we see her clash so violently with her father that running away seems like the only option).
With her disappearance, the oxygen has been sucked from her parents’ lives. Their evenings are spent waiting — hoping for Ayumi’s return — and being troubled by strange phone calls in which the caller listens for several moments before hanging up. Is it Ayumi? Does she want to come home? They have no idea — the caller never says a word.
No signs of their daughter, no satisfaction in his work, no tenderness, no sex or intimacy — this is the atmosphere Yokoyama creates over several hundred pages.
For readers impatiently waiting for something more to happen, what Yokoyama told a Malay Mail reporter earlier this year may be helpful: “In order to describe the main character’s feelings or passions, you need a big organization that is like a big ocean that I let the character swim in.”
Eventually something noirish surfaces in this ocean — finally. As he coordinates the commissioner’s meeting with Amamiya (who hasn’t even agreed to it yet), Mikami uncovers strange dissonances — conflicting messages, a sense of invisible maneuvers taking place, of a conspiracy somehow tied to the commissioner’s visit. A shadowy power struggle is going on between Mikami’s old and new superiors in Administrative Affairs and Criminal Investigations, and he can’t understand why or who it is supposed to benefit.
A longtime investigative journalist in the Tokyo area, Yokoyama offers a wealth of intriguing observations in the course of Mikami’s odyssey. He describes the contentious nature of the police press corps and their use of boycotts to manipulate access, how non-disclosure agreements are used to limit the impact of press coverage on investigations, the cheapest way to disguise a voice on the phone (use a helium-filled balloon), the customs that a grieving parent uses to honor a child’s death, the “kindred fanaticism” that exists between cops and reporters, and more.
All of this detail gives us a thorough sense of the world of police media and press relations. The question is whether we really need all 566 pages.
Any seasoned editor would have found a way to take the book’s final 150 pages (where the story takes off in an unexpected pursuit with an ingenious outcome) and pare down the other 400 to create something truly similar to Larsson or the other writers sometimes mentioned in reviews of Yokoyama’s novel: Jo Nesbø and Gillian Flynn.
But it is the heavy emphasis on the despair of Mikami, a mid-level bureaucrat, and the stifling atmosphere of his life — page after page of his wandering through mazes of bureaucracy — that point us to somewhere else.
With every sling and arrow inflicted on Mikami, with every insult he receives that makes his “face and body flush as a burning shame, furnace-like in its force, began to well up inside him,” Mikami doesn’t evoke one of Stieg Larsson’s characters. Mikami reminds us more of Thoreau’s men leading “lives of quiet desperation.” Of Willy Loman, too. Or the narrator of Fight Club. Even 1984’s Winston Smith — but not Mikael Blomkvist. Mikami belongs in their illustrious fictional company — a litany of characters fighting for their humanity in societies that have forgotten them.
And that brings us back to the novel’s length. Yokoyama’s “big ocean” enables us to watch Mikami as he slowly finds his way back to himself, to a meaning for his life in a world in which the traditional modes of self-identity — as husband, parent, lover, consummate professional — have fallen away. It is a long, painful journey, and along the way he encounters many former colleagues who have faced that same dilemma … and crashed.
But Mikami doesn’t; he persists. He endures. In the face of insults, he disciplines his responses and wears the Zen Buddhist armor of gaman, of stoicism and grace. Mikami “submitted to Akama’s will,” Yokoyama writes of Mikami’s response to one of his enemies. “He’d taken everything on board and donned the uniform of obedience. That didn’t mean he’d stopped hoping.”
This, I think, is another reason why the book has been so successful. Yes, there is a devilishly clever twist in the novel’s later pages, but we spend a lot of time with Mikami before we get there. And we don’t mind it: we like his company. Mikami is so sympathetic, so heroic, even in apparent defeat.
In Six Four Yokoyama finds a way, within the familiar tropes and conventions of the thriller genre, to give us a search for meaning and dignity that transcends its Japanese milieu. Mikami’s struggle is the same struggle that great thinkers of every age have written about. When Mikami uncovers enough of the hidden power struggle to consider exposing it, he knows he’ll be punished and “tossed off to some post in the mountains.” But it doesn’t matter. He decides “he would rather start from scratch in the middle of nowhere. The smallest paths are still paths.”
That line rings with the kind of Thoreauvian insight that makes Mikami’s journey memorable and profound.
Nick Owchar is executive director of advancement communications at Claremont Graduate University; he blogs regularly at Call of the Siren.