This thriller, from someone described as the Japanese crime-writing sensation, has the front cover blurb ‘everyone has something to hide’ and that notion is at the heart of the book. It is not spoiling anything to reveal that the book revolves around the murder of a young woman – young women are sacrificed at a very rapid rate as a means of examining the nature of society around the world and particularly in Japan, where there is often a certain relish for the task. In this case, the central characters each get an opportunity to appear centre-stage and to have their personality examined. Each one has, as previously indicated, something to hide and, at first, the reader’s reactions to each one is likely to be unfavourable. Subsequent events will rectify this to some extent as revelations of social relations will case the characters in a slightly more positive aspect and this helps to prevent the problem of not liking any of the characters and, therefore, finding it difficult actually to like the book.
Alienation is at the heart of this novel, as it is in so much of modern Japanese fiction, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The characters find themselves in workplaces which are unrewarding and their social relations have been converted into commercial relations in the case of tragic Yoshino, quite literally so. In response, they try to find some kind of redemption or, at least, authenticity through consumption, whether of consumer goods, intoxicants or people, which even in the best circumstances only pushes back the misery for a short while. Episodes of violence appear, therefore, to be the inevitable response to the need to create an Event (i.e. that which produces a response greater than what seems to be justifiable) that will bring about a rupture in reality and, with hope, bring something better or at least closer to authenticity. Villain illustrates this tendency with the characters trying and failing to reinvent themselves though consumption and then wrongly seeing the Event in the person of the others. So it is that yuichi, presumed murderer and apparently rather bad egg (his justification is not very convincing) still manages to inspire almost fanatical and certainly manic dedication in young woman who appears to have something of an empty life but scarcely appears to be in so desperate a situation that he represents possible redemption. Nevertheless, it is quite a powerful development.
The novel is set in a world of cheap sex hotels, convenience store snacks and places just beyond the reach of the streetlights. People communicate with each other by using the full panoply of contemporary internet modes but what they say most commonly seems tawdry. Few characters come out of the action with an enhanced reputation. It is an oddly compelling world but the translation, by Philip Gabriel, occasionally gets in the way of the action with its use of colloquial Americanisms (y’all) which do not seem to be in the right place. That aside, the book is certainly well worth reading.