Speaking the language of intrigue: Hideo Yokoyama looks for US hit

Hideo Yokoyama, the popular crime novelist, at home in Isesaki, Japan, January 24, 2017. — Picture by Kentaro Takahashi/The New York Times
Hideo Yokoyama, the popular crime novelist, at home in Isesaki, Japan, January 24, 2017. — Picture by Kentaro Takahashi/The New York Times

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ISESAKI, Feb 3 — Hideo Yokoyama is one of Japan’s most popular crime novelists. Yet he regards the crime as the least interesting part of the stories he tells.

“Usually, in a mystery or thriller, the main character is the detective, and the crime is the main ingredient,” said Yokoyama during an interview in the home he shares with his wife in a quiet residential neighbourhood about 75 miles northwest of central Tokyo. “But is that really a special thing for the detective? It’s not a big deal for the detective.”

Instead, Yokoyama, 60, is interested in the psychology and social dynamics of characters who happen to be affected by crime. In the case of Six Four, his 15th novel and the first to be translated into English, the main character, Yoshinobu Mikami, is not a detective but a police department spokesman ensnared in a 14-year-old unsolved kidnapping case while his own teenage daughter has gone missing.

While there is a whodunit aspect to the novel (and a spectacular twist at the end), much of the book’s 560-plus pages are devoted to probing Mikami’s domestic life with his wife, a former detective, as they navigate their marriage after their daughter runs away, and exploring the treacherous police bureaucracy and its combative relations with the news media.

“In order to describe the main character’s feelings or passions, you need a big organisation that is like a big ocean that I let the character swim in,” said Yokoyama, who spent a dozen years as a reporter on the police beat in Gunma prefecture.

Six Four has sold extremely well in Japan and was adapted into a movie that has been nominated for the Japan Academy Prize, this country’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. The book was translated into English last year and published to positive reviews in Britain, where it was a best seller, and will go on sale Tuesday in the United States.

Yokoyama follows other Japanese crime writers whose work has been translated into English, including Seicho Matsumoto, Natsuo Kirino and Keigo Higashino, though he is currently assigned to a marketing pigeonhole that compares Six Four to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Where Larsson’s series was propelled by violence, sex and its charismatic heroine, Lisbeth Salander, Six Four features a stodgy protagonist who is called a “gargoyle” by the press and is haunted by the fact that his daughter ran away because she “despised the face she inherited.”

In his descriptions of interactions between police and the media, Yokoyama captures their everyday sexism: One junior press officer, a young woman, repeatedly asks Mikami to let her attend after-hours drinking sessions with reporters. He refuses, in a paternalistic effort to protect her from lecherous journalists.

With his grey hair long enough to brush the edge of his collar, Yokoyama recalled how he grew frustrated with journalism and what he saw as its absolutist lens.

“When I was a reporter, I was very confident that I was not the kind of person who could ever commit a crime,” he said. “But now that I have been working as an author, I believe that I could commit a crime — or that anyone could commit a crime.”

Toward the end of his reporting career, Yokoyama started writing fiction. He submitted a short story for a literary prize and won third place; by then, he had decided to quit his job.

He was 34 and married, with two young children at home, so he worked odd jobs at moving and security companies while writing in his spare time.

It took seven years for him to sell his first novel, Kage no Kisetsu or Season of Shadows, which was published in 1998 and won a prestigious prize for mystery writers.

Publishers began clamouring for more, and Yokoyama buried himself in writing.

He rented a 110-square-foot studio apartment and wrote for more than 20 hours a day, imbibing energy drinks to keep awake and popping sleeping pills when he needed to nap. “I just stayed in that apartment, writing on three hours of sleep a night,” he said. “It was a big science experiment.”

Yokoyama frantically pumped out four new books in five years, while also working on and off on the manuscript of Six Four. It takes its title from the reign of Emperor Hirohito and denotes the year in which the cold kidnapping case at the centre of the novel took place. (The Japanese count the years of each emperor’s reign separately from the Gregorian calendar year, and the year of the emperor’s death was known as “64.”)

The punishing schedule caught up with him, and in 2003, Yokoyama had a heart attack. As he gradually recovered and returned to writing, he could not even remember Mikami’s name. But long bouts tending his garden helped refresh him, and three years later, he finished the novel.

The publisher Bungeishunju released Six Four in 2012, and Japanese critics praised it for subverting the traditional police procedural. In a culture where an increasing number of workers are frustrated by hierarchical bureaucracy, the novel was a big hit.

At a dinner party in Tokyo, Jon Riley, editor-in-chief of Quercus, a London-based publisher that released the Stieg Larsson novels in Britain, heard of the novel’s popularity and commissioned an English summary. On the basis of that report, Quercus bought the rights to translate Six Four into English, and hired Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, an accomplished translator of Japanese fiction.

Writing in The Guardian last year, Alison Flood described Six Four as a “slow burn” crime novel that provided a “layered insight into internal police politics.” The novel was shortlisted for an International Dagger Award for crime fiction.

In the United States, where Six Four will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Lloyd-Davies’ translation, the publisher is planning an initial print run of 11,000 hardcover copies and hopes US audiences will be drawn to the discursive police drama. — The New York Times

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