Author: Shuichi YoshidaPublisher: Vintage

Villain is the first novel by Shuichi Yoshida to be published in English and is translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Although it concerns the murder of a young woman it is, at its heart, a novel about modern Japan. Yoshida uses the murder as a peg upon which to hang the stories of those who have, however tangentially, been touched by the life of the murdered girl. Initially, Villain seems very different from most other modern crime fiction, lacking as it does the conventional linear structure and other plot devices common to the genre. However, on closer inspection, the author’s intentions become clearer.

The novel opens with a panoramic view of Mitsuse Pass, the location of the murder, and immediately establishes it as a symbol, literally and metaphorically, of the price the characters pay for the choices they make. It builds gradually, layering voices and characters as it goes. The common denominator is the loneliness of the characters, whether working far from home, substituting online dating for real relationships, or ageing slowly in a seaside town full of other old people.

In the opening chapters we meet the victim, Yoshino, and her friends Sari and Mako, who work together selling insurance door-to-door. Yoshino’s life revolves around her work, socialising with her friends, and her private life, where she seeks meaningful connections with the world around her through online dating sites and desperate encounters in ’love hotels’. None of these three characters elicit our sympathy, with Yoshino being particularly self-obsessed and manipulative.

Initially, there is only one suspect in the murder enquiry – a student Yoshino has met only once but around whom she has built a fantasy relationship. To add to the weight of evidence against him he has disappeared. However, this is cast into doubt when loner Yuichi, on an impulse, contacts Mitsuyo, a thirty year-old shop-worker via an online dating site. They start a relationship and later run away together.

The novel’s blurb states that it is ’part police procedural, part dirty realism’. However, there is little to back this up – we see none of the police investigation and the tone of the novel lacks the darkness to be found in the work of, for example, Natsuo Kirino or Ryu Murikami. Where Villain works well is in its almost hypnotic meditations on the minutiae of loneliness – the little rituals the characters re-enact on a daily basis just to keep going.

Bravely, the author refuses to use any of the tricks that characterise modern crime fiction – while the structure of Villain means that there is little tension, it allows him to explore his characters’ inner lives and to play with perspective. Similarly, there are no twists – the main characters simply resign themselves to their fates in a quietly dignified and realistic manner.

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