Globe & Mail - Monday May 9th 2005
The devils in the details
The 1937-38 Nanjing massacre and the seamy underside of contemporary Tokyo come together in Mo Hayders gruesome new novel, writes ELIZABETH RENZETTI
BATH, ENGLAND -- Two years ago, Mo Hayder returned to Japan to investigate the murder of Lucie Blackman, a young Englishwoman who was murdered in 2000 while working as a hostess at a Tokyo nightclub.
Hayder got a job at the same nightclub where Blackman had worked, although she was 20 years older than the rest of the hostesses: "All the other girls were 18," says Hayder, now 43, "but it was dimly lit and the manager was incredibly drunk, so I was able to get a job."
This would be a diligent effort if Hayder were a private detective or a friend of the Blackman family, but she was, instead, a crime novelist, working on a book set in Tokyos high-rolling hostess clubs.
Hayder was living in the genteel spa town of Bath when she read about Blackmans murder, which was accompanied by hysterical headlines about the dangers of being a gaijin hostess in the Japanese capital. Hayder had been a hostess in Tokyo during the money-burning days of the late 1980s -- lighting mens cigarettes, making small talk, receiving $1,000 tips -- and she didnt recognize the predatory atmosphere the English papers were describing.
So she returned, hoping to get a sense of how much things had changed. What she discovered was that a flood of foreigners, especially from Eastern Europe, meant that "Western womens currency had plummeted" to the point where some were literally trapped, unable to raise enough money to leave the country. After a week, Hayder returned to her paper-and-book-filled basement office in Bath to resume work on her novel, The Devil of Nanking. In it, a young Englishwoman named Grey, who has been obsessed with the wartime Japanese pillage of the Chinese city now known as Nanjing, lands a hostess job at Mama Strawberrys penthouse club in Tokyo in an effort to discover more about the war crimes. Grey, an odd and disturbed character, is not entirely sure what is expected of a hostess.
That, says Hayder, is a common problem. Before she returned to Japan to do research, her partner picked up their baby daughter and said, "Mommys going to Tokyo to be a hooker!" Hayder says this with a full-bodied laugh: Any woman who ran away from home at 15, lived hand-to-mouth and then worked as a security guard, has to learn to protect herself with a sense of humour.
In fact, she says (and this is something her partner knew well), in her day, a hostess was expected to do little more than be a charming companion to hard-drinking clients. "If anyone tried to touch you, Mama-san would throw them out. It was just talking and lighting cigarettes. It seems incredible to me now that I was making a living just sitting and talking to people."
In her novel, a giant neon Marilyn Monroe glides on a swing outside Mama Strawberrys club high above Tokyo; inside is the monstrous spectacle of the Nurse, a savage, gender-indeterminate bodyguard of an aging yakuza (gangster) boss. Clearly, Tokyos hallucinogenic visual qualities lodged in Hayders brain.
"Its the first time I had the location before I had the story. Its such an incredibly visual place, full of outrageous, kooky things."
After a peripatetic life, Hayder settled with her family in the tranquil surroundings of Bath, where, she says wistfully, "You see Japanese girls wandering the streets dressed as Jane Austen. Its quite mad." Her elegant exterior -- honey-blond hair, models cheekbones -- is thin camouflage for a devilish core. Looking out the window of her 200-year-old house, she spots some campaigners from UKIP, the right-wing British anti-Europe party, and asks, "Do you think we should throw boiling water on them?"
In the basement, where Hayder wrote her third novel in longhand, are her reference books, including the ones on the Nanjing massacre. She has long been drawn to Nanjing, where Japanese forces raped, tortured and murdered Chinese civilians in 1937-38 during the Sino-Japanese war.
When she was still a teenager, living with a bunch of bikers in London, she came across a shocking photo of an execution in one of their blood-and-guts magazines. Years later, while living in Japan, she saw the same photo again and learned that it was taken in Nanjing.
"I thought, Bloody hell, how can I have never heard of this before? So the next day I started asking my Japanese friends, and they all went --." She mimes a blank stare. "Theyd never heard of it."
Hayders novel is dedicated to Iris Chang, the young American author of the controversial 1997 bestseller The Rape of Nanking. Changs book, which explored in depth the atrocities committed in China, drew heavy criticism in Japan. Chang killed herself last year, at the age of 36, while researching a book about the 1942 Bataan Death March, and left behind her husband and two-year-old son. "It was so hard to understand," says Hayder, who never met Chang. "I thought, God she must have been so depressed."
Although her new novel has received the best notices of Hayders career (in its review, Entertainment Weekly called her "diabolically gifted"), The Devil of Nanking will not be published in Japan. Her Japanese publishers called her in when they heard about the subject matter and told her they might be interested in releasing the book if she didnt list the number of Nanjing dead at 300,000, a figure they disputed as "Chinese propaganda." To this day, the subject is contentious: Recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China were sparked in part by coy wording about Nanjing and other conflicts in Japanese textbooks.
In Hayders novel, two strands -- a historical account of life in Nanjing as the Japanese forces approached, and Greys dangerous run-ins with a decrepit gangster -- move toward a strikingly grisly climax that involves bowels hung in trees and other delights. "Oh," she laughs, quite pleased. "You noticed the horrible bits?"
Her first two books, detective novels set in London, were also notable for their attention to gruesome detail. The details came from her admittedly dark imagination, but her information about the way police behaved came from a first-hand source. Hayder hung out with a murder squad for a while, a task accomplished only after she proved woman enough to take their good-humour bullying.
"They were horrible at first, they teased me. They wouldnt give the awful details because I was a girl." At one meeting, as she sat dutifully writing notes about authentic homicide-detection practices, the detectives said things like, "Dont worry, guv, well bang him to rights. Well have him singing like a canary in no time." Hayder thought, "My God, they do actually talk like that!" That is, until she looked up from her notepad to find them all snickering at her.
Such excitement is rarely found in Bath, where the most heinous thing to happen recently is the public fight over the long-delayed reopening of the towns spa. Still, its not all Austen heroines with calm exteriors, even in this pretty town. There are darker forces at work. As she leaves her house, Hayder points to a scar on the side of her car: There, painstakingly scratched into the paint, is the word "sphincter." "Thats when I knew we were living in Bath," she sighs. "If we were in London, they would have just written asshole. " Globe & Mail