People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

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I saw Lucie Blackman last week. She was walking down the street in Austin, Texas near the Congress Avenue Bridge. Then I saw her a few days later in the grocery store, separating the ripe tomatoes from the hard ones. It’s possible I saw her again in the stands of a televised basketball game. There’s a good chance I’ll see her later this week, or the next time I’m in a crowd and my eyes skim over the faces around me.

Except, I didn’t actually see Lucie Blackman.

No one has seen Lucie since her mutilated body was discovered buried under a bathtub in a Japanese cave twelve years ago.

Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness paints such a vivid picture of Lucie’s life and disappearance that I began to do double takes of recognition when seeing tall, blonde women with high, wide cheekbones and thick chins.

True crime books deserve their sullied reputation. They’re usually lurid to the point of cheesiness, sensationally cheap, and often rushed to print. But as with any genre, some titles rise to the top. People Who Eat Darkness is more in line with cultural history or a dual biography of Lucie and her killer. Lloyd Parry’s book has also recently made the short list for The Orwell Prize.

Lucie was twenty years old when she moved from Britain to Japan. She was murdered at twenty-one.

But those are meager facts, a dry record of what happened and when. By themselves they’re not very interesting.

People Who Eat Darkness represents Lloyd Parry’s attempt to immerse the reader in the puzzling chaos of what happens when a young British girl disappears in Japan. Along the way we come to know Lucie, her family, her killer, and her killer’s family, while also receiving a fascinating education about some of Japan’s more unflattering and arcane characteristics.

People Who Eat Darkness is nearly 500 pages long. The book needs this length in order to tell as complete a story as possible. The author uses school records, diaries, letters to boyfriends, and exhaustive interviews with Lucie’s family and friends. Lucie is one of the most well-rounded characters I’ve ever encountered in a book. Not only have I seen her at the grocery store, but I could speculate on what she was going to make for dinner or what kind of guy she was dating.

As the Asia bureau chief of The Times (London), Lloyd Parry started covering Lucie’s case twelve years ago. The complicated, tortuous line of her disappearance, the massive search, and then the accused murderer’s long, spectacle of a trial burrowed under his skin:

The quality of evasiveness, the sense in which it outstripped familiar categories of news, made the story fascinating. It was like an itch that no four columns of newspaper copy or three-minute television item could ever scratch. The story infected my dreams; even after months had passed, I found it impossible to forget Lucie Blackman. I followed the story from the beginning and through its successive stages, trying to craft something consistent and intelligible out of its kinks and knots and roughness. It took me ten years.

Lloyd Parry deftly creates suspense in a story that shouldn’t have any. A quick trip to Wikipedia or a dozen other sites devoted to Lucie will tell the reader everything he or she wants to know (or doesn’t want to know) about her death. But Lloyd Parry has layered the information in a way to limit spoilers and preserve mystery. Even though the reader knows Lucie is dead, I guarantee there will be times when you think that maybe, just maybe, they’ll find her alive.

Lucie worked as a hostess in a bar located in Ropongi—a Tokyo neighborhood filled with nightclubs. One of the most interesting digressions in the book is an exploration of Japan’s wide spectrum of bars and clubs that cater to men willing to pay for the company of women.

At the top are the highly skilled (and clothed) geishas, and then it descends through different categories, such as the “no-pants coffee shop” and its close cousin the “no pants karaoke coffee shop,” to “lingerie pubs,” “peeping tom pubs,” “touch cabarets” and various “massage” parlors or “fashion health” facilities (which provide a similar, um, release). The spectrum extends down into the darker S&M dungeons.

Most hostess clubs operate in the tamer portion of the spectrum. The customers are generally Japanese businessmen who are willing to pay for the company blonde, foreign women. The hostesses, like Lucie, pour drinks, flirt with the men, reassure everyone that they’re handsome and charming, and gracefully accept any compliments. It’s a delicate play of etiquette and understood parameters. The hostess may say she wants to go home with the men, but the men don’t actually expect to be seduced, and most would panic if the woman seriously wanted to have sex. Evidently the most common disruptions in hostess clubs arise when non-Japanese foreigners mistake the intentions behind the intense flirting.

It’s not surprising that Japan is full of traditions and rituals that are mystifying to Americans, but it is wonderfully surprising that Lloyd Parry is able to explain them to a general audience.

These detours into cultural anthropology would have turned into meaningless distractions in the hands of a less authoritative writer. But the crisp, clean writing make the history lessons come alive. There’s a bulkiness to the book, but it’s bulky in all the right directions. People Who Eat Darkness is an exploration of depth, not thin sensationalism.

Every person and organization, from the Tokyo police department to international journalists, is examined so closely that flaws and cracks appear in every façade. In People Who Eat Darkness there are no simple camps of good and evil.

Even Lucie and her family aren’t immune to the warts and all treatment. At times Lucie comes across as helplessly naïve and her parents as only barely sympathetic. In the book, Lucie’s family becomes real people who make mistakes, do terrible things, and treat each other poorly. The tendency to constantly humanize and complicate the most seemingly good or evil people in the book is one of the strongest aspects of People Who Eat Darkness.

Lloyd Parry can’t explain the darkness that swallowed Lucie, but what he can do is research more, dig deeper into archives, and interview more people. The digressions into Japanese cultural history, into previous failures of the Tokyo police, into the plight of ethnic Koreans in Japan, aren’t strictly necessary to tell Lucie’s story. Yet it’s almost as if by asking more questions, explaining more details, exploring more of the history, Lloyd Parry believes he can find some peace.

At first, I thought it was amusing that I kept “seeing” Lucie. It was a weird trick of the eye and the mind that revealed how much this book got under my skin. But thoughts of Lucie turn to thoughts of her killer, and to thoughts of her parents. If I’m seeing Lucie Blackman in random crowds, and having my flesh crawl, then how can her parents go anywhere?

Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Nimrod, The San Antonio Express News, HTML Giant, Kill Author, Kirkus Reviews, and many others. He’s finally close to completing his first novel and is working on a series of noir novellas. More from this author →