Tokyo is that most modern of cities, the microchipped metropolis where vending machines and lavatory seats seem to have enough artificial intelligence to beat a Russian grandmaster at chess. The advertisements are a fantasia of flashing lights, the subway sparkles, and the city teems with engineers, whose inventions – the vehicles and video games of tomorrow – have conquered the world. Tokyo might be the only city on Earth whose residents think of Londoners and New Yorkers as backward.
What’s interesting about this hypermodernity is that it has arrived alongside an extraordinary renunciation of violence by a society for so long considered synonymous with it. The samurai class, once hailed round the world as the paragon of martial virtue, has given way to slick, suited salarymen, whose expertise is in global merchandising, not sword fighting. In place of the shoguns who pretty much invented military dictatorship, Japan now has the longest serving democratic regime in Asia, with a constitution that prohibits war. The army has, by law, no offensive weapons – not a single ballistic or nuclear missile – while Tokyo, according to numerous metrics, is the safest city in the world.
David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy can be read as an allegory of this transformation. For the detectives, politicos, gangsters and geishas that populate these novels – Tokyo Year Zero (2007), Occupied City (2009) and now the final instalment, Tokyo Redux – the past is a zone of violence bordering perilously on the present. Theirs is a struggle to cast off a legacy of atom bombs, genocide and sexual slavery. The crimes each novel is plotted around are real occurrences from postwar Tokyo’s early years. They become metaphors for the way historic violence haunts a city in search of a new identity, a tension that imbues everything with “the stench of the past, the noise of the future”.
Tokyo Redux concerns what the Japanese call the “Shimoyama incident”: the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the first head of JNR (Japanese National Railways), whose body was found dismembered by a locomotive in 1949. It’s the perfect mystery for Peace. Shimoyama’s sacking of 30,000 workers made him a target for the unions, allowing Peace to pursue his fascination with the conspiratorial world of industrial politics, as he did in 2004’s GB84, a fictionalised account of the miners’ strike. That JNR, with its iconic bullet trains, would become the most admired rail network in the world, an emblem of futuristic Japan, means that the alleged murder of its founding chief is freighted with symbolism, a junction at which old Japan halts the shiny new one in its tracks.
Portraying the long shadow cast by the incident, the narrative unfolds in three periods: 1949, during the occupation; 1964, as Tokyo hosts the Olympics; y 1989, as Emperor Showa, who led Japan through the second world war, enters his death throes. Each period has its own protagonist: primero, Harry Sweeney, a jaded cop seconded from Montana; next, Murota Hideki, a deadpan PI fired from the police for “fucking a pan-pan gal on my beat”. Both are from central casting, maintaining a smoky, masculine aura in the best (or worst?) noir traditions. Our final sleuth, aunque, an ageing, émigré translator, fits a more unusual profile: the kind of brilliant literary mind that washed up in postwar Tokyo, a generation that never quite had a Hemingway to mythologise it. (His name, Donald Reichenbach, is a reference to Donald Richie, the cult film critic who epitomised this type.) He is the most vivid character, no doubt due to a degree of self-identification on the part of Peace, who himself spent more than a decade in creative exile in Japan.
Connections are suggested with the 1948 Teigin poisonings central to Occupied City, and there are hints of a tantalising web of complicity, but we don’t actually learn what really happened with Shimoyama. Peace writes crime fiction in name only; “whodunit?” is a question entertained, then relinquished, and for all his paranoid speculations, Peace stays faithful to the inscrutable mystery of each of these historic cases, unresolved to this day. His prose is braided with actual press headlines running for pages on end, like the “newsreel” sections in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, to which Peace is indebted. The details are meticulously researched, down to the dying emperor’s Mickey Mouse wristwatch. The effect is one of transfixing veracity.
Repetition and rhyme, trusted Peace techniques (some might say tics), give the prose an incantatory rhythm and an epic feel. This often drifts into bathos (the recipe-book ring of “douse” and “souse” somewhat undercuts a sombre moment). Japanese is a distinctively onomatopoeic language; sense is conveyed by approximating the sound of things, feelings, even ideas. Peace channels this phonetic quality, coining leitmotivs to stress his key themes. Por lo tanto, ton-ton, the repetitive hammering of construction for the Olympics, is the “noise of the future” in which Japan seeks to promote itself to the world as a beacon of peace. But trailing behind is the unforgettable echo of the old world: shu-shu pop-po, a speeding train, or Shimoyama’s bones snapping. Many novels are hyped as “polyphonic”, but Peace’s now complete Tokyo trilogy truly is, brilliantly summoning forth multiple voices in the soundscape of a city gripped by seismic change.