'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.

Author Richard Lloyd Parry says that he had not expected the young victim, Lucie Blackman, to be a terribly interesting character but he discovered that "at the age of 20, life is very complicated and people have very complicated personalities."

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.

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?

A: It has to do with justice being seen as not only being about punishing criminals and recognizing the suffering victims, but also in some way restoring social harmony. Parts of that is understanding the crime and why it happened.

Q: You found many levels of humanity in a fun-loving and risk-taking young woman who seems rather ordinary at first glance. How did you realize that such a person could actually be quite complex?

A: In the beginning, I'd assumed she was not one of the most interesting people in the story: she was very young, she had a normal background. I wasn't expecting to devote that much time to learning about her.

Once I got to know some of her friends, I realized how wrong I'd been. I talked to these friends, and every one of them described a person who was slightly different and sometimes significantly different.

I realized that at the age of 20, life is very complicated and people have very complicated personalities, and you do present different facets to the world.

Q: How does your interest as a person in her play out in the book?

A: The first 40 pages are about Lucie growing up in this perfectly middle class family in the south of England. It was both interesting to me and necessary in the book.

I wanted her to be more than just the face on the poster, a person in a chain of events. I wanted to restore her humanity, her personality, and allow her to be more than just a victim.

Q: You write about how members of her family grieved in very different ways, not always meeting society's expectations. What did covering this story help you to understand about grief?

A: What I realized was that collectively, we all like to feel that we are sympathetic and understanding of those who are experiencing loss and grief. But in fact, we have a rather narrow set of expectations of how people in those situations should behave.

Lucie's family, particularly her father, failed to behave in a way that we expected. From the beginning, her father was dynamic, not at all passive, and he made the decision early on to take control of events and direct them.

He rarely wept or appeared overcome with emotion. This made people feel suspicious, uneasy and even hostile toward him. He wasn't doing anything wrong, it was just because he didn't match this stereotype of the stricken, grieving parent.

Q: What did you learn from Lucie's mother?

A: She once said to me, "'Moving on and closure' – what do they mean, where do you move on to, what closes?" Those are cliches from people who have not experienced grief. It's another example of the narrowmindedness about these situations and the impatience with people who have suffered a loss.

Q: Do you feel like "evil" is involved here?

A: I don't know what it means. By labeling something as evil, we give ourselves a false consolation that we've understood why this person did that. But it doesn't explain anything.

What interests me in human behavior is not these moral labels. Even the people who appear to be most obvious candidates for the term "evil" are human beings. They come from the human family, they're one of us.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.