Friday, June 1, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Perry. 
True crime is often marked by the way a series of random events betray regular, unsuspecting people.  Girl goes to the store and never returns, girl goes on a date and is never heard from again. It is also marked by the luridness of the details once they are eventually uncovered. Girl is found desecrated in a ditch by an obsessive store clerk, girl is found stuffed in an air-vent by a jealous boyfriend.  Whether it is on television news, online journalism, or in long works of non-fiction, such as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the public’s fascination for these stories is endless.  We tirelessly obsess and dissect these stories not just because of the grim nature of their details, but because of the hidden morality they appear to offer us. We focus on the alcohol and spring break madness that led Natalie Holloway to walk alone on the beach with a strange man, the decision of the McCann family to leave their infant child unattended in a hotel room while they ate dinner with friends.  In these moments, we can feel safe in the presumed knowledge that we know better, that we would not make those decisions. 
            The disappearance of Lucie Blackman, as told in Richard Lloyd Perry’s stellar “The People Who Eat Darkness,” appears on the surface to fit this mold in almost textbook fashion.  Lucie, a former airline stewardess in her twenties, left the comfort of her life in Great Britain for a vague job as a “hostess” in Tokyo in hopes of quickly paying off her debts. She never returned, or as the book jacket says, was “swallowed whole.”  Her disappearance, which caused a media sensation (even then-Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke publically about the case), the eventual discovery of her body, and the trial of the man accused of her murder, all point to the ways in which our lives are quickly and irreversibly defined by actions in which we cannot possibly see the consequences, but could have easily done much better. 
            But what sets Perry’s lengthy investigation apart from most true crime works is how once the details of this sadly common “narrative” arc are held up to the light, they become even more complex, bizarre, and ultimately frightening.  Perry, an investigative journalist who reported on the case for years, wisely uses the true crime structure to frame his story.  But freed from the word-limit deadline of news journalism, the small details, which could have been easily glossed over, become luminous.  Perry is an expert in explaining the differences between Japanese and British cultures.  In Japan, Lucie worked as a “hostess.” Women who work as hostesses are paid a salary to spend evenings in bars talking with Japanese businessmen.  Hostesses are encouraged to go on further “dates” with these men, outside of the bar, for which they are paid extra, by both the client and the club.  Each meeting is kept on record with the club.  Hostesses who have a large list of outside clients are paid extra, while those that do not are eventually let go.  But as Perry clearly explains, the expectation was not entirely for sex, although it could occur.  The meetings were erotic, yet not always explicit.  In the hands of a less observant journalist, a job like this could easily be labeled as prostitution, and in fact was by many in the media. It is understandings such as this that makes "People" such an exceptional read.  The facts of Lucie’s death could easily be told in a 48 minutes “Dateline” episode, but as with any life, the story of Lucie Blackman requires more than headlines.