'People Who Eat Darkness' could be the best true crime book of the century
'People Who Eat Darkness' follows the case of Lucie Blackman, who disappeared in Tokyo more than a decade ago.
Thanks to its wealth and post-war embrace of the rest of the world, Japan often seems like a Western nation. But the similarities end when crime begins.Skip to next paragraph
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When someone stands accused, the justice system works in ways that seem bizarre to people in places like the US and UK. Guilt is virtually assumed, confessions are expected, and everyone demands to understand motives.
Just over a decade ago, the mystery of a young British woman's disappearance overturned everything. Nothing – not the convoluted case, the international outcry, the wily suspect or the bizarre trial – followed protocol. Neither did many of the players, including a bereft family trying to find its way in a strange land.
Richard Lloyd Parry, a British journalist based in Tokyo, covered the case from the beginning and recaps the tale in his gripping new book "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."
Despite the grim and gruesome topic, it's a masterpiece of perceptive and humane journalism, perhaps the best true-crime book of the century so far.
In an interview, Parry talks about the complexity he discovered in a seemingly simple young woman, his journey into society's expectations of the grief-stricken and the inability of the concept of evil to answer questions.
Q: What makes this such an interesting tale?
A: There so many different kinds of stories in it. In the beginning it was a mystery, then it became a kind of family drama: Lucie Blackman's father, sister and mother came out and were looking for answers with increasing desperation. It became a police drama, and eventually a suspect was arrested.
Then there was a courtroom drama, and an almost existential mystery of who this man was and what made him what he was. Close to the end, it even became a bit of personal drama for me.
By telling those stories, you gain insight into Japan society, into this British family, and into the way they interacted.
Q: How is crime and punishment different in Japan?
A: Superficially, the systems look similar: You have courts, judges and juries (although back then they didn't have juries).
Crime in Japan is really very low still. This case is not the tip of an iceberg. It's a very safe country, but when an unusual crime does come along, the police are ill-equipped to deal with it. They simply don't have the practice, and when they do, they're hamstrung, partly because of the extreme reliance of Japanese courts on confessions.
Most of the time they get confessions – something like 15 out of 16 cases – and Japanese prosecutors are reluctant to proceed to trial without confession.
When a suspect refuses to confess, they struggle to build a case through detective work.
Q: You write about how the Japanese justice system expects to understand a criminal's motive. Why is that so important?