It’s no surprise Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief won The OE Prize, one of Japan’s biggest literary awards. Both a crime thriller and character study, it is a unique and engrossing read, keeping a distant yet thoughtful eye on the people it follows.
The story itself is relatively simple, in fact the main character is only known as The Thief. He’s been living a low-risk criminal life as a pickpocket who hits Tokyo’s more high toned areas, making himself as unnoticeable as he can. It’s a practice that has lead him to be detached from life and people. That is until he spots a boy trying to pickpocket with less finesse. At the same time, an old accomplice pulls him into his plan for a home invasion. When the robbery goes wrong and it looks to be part of a political assassination, The Thief begins to see himself as a protector of the boy and his sex worker mother, developing emotions at a time when he needs them the least.
Nakamura’s use of detail in his protagonist’s world is a fascinating and integral part of of the novel. Its look at Tokyo’s criminal class makes it at times read like a Japanese The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Watching The Thief hone in on a mark and apply his trade really pulls you into the story. Something that’s unique from many western crime novels is that because of the country’s strict gun control laws, the outlaws use knives and short swords. If you think this would make the book less violent, think again.
It is that sense of detail that brings the characters out, no matter how hard they are. It reflects their lives in a society that has pushed them from humanity. When they take a few stumbling steps toward it, Nakamura never forgets how jaded the people he’s writing about really are. He may be looking at his story with a cold eye, but the warmth he sees is real and all the more poignant because of its faintness. It’s a haunting undercurrent, making The Thief a book that’s hard to shake once you’ve read it.