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Onyx reviews: Villain by Shuichi Yoshida

Yoshino Ishibashi sells policies for the Heisei Insurance company, mostly to her friends and acquaintances. She recently moved away from home and into company apartments in Hakata ward of Fukuoka City, on the northern shore of the island of Kyushu, Japan. Her parents are simple people; her father Yoshio runs a barbershop that struggles because he doesn't offer fashionable stylings and his shop isn't located near either of Kurume's train stations. Yoshino's calls home are becoming briefer and less frequent, and she rarely visits.

Yoshino supplements her income by dating men she meets online, asking them to pay for her expenses and for sex in so-called love hotels. She breaks off from her friends one night, telling them she has plans to meet Keigo Masuo—a popular university student she says is her boyfriend—in a nearby park. When she fails to show up for work the next morning and a woman's body is found at remote Mitsue Pass—a place with a reputation for being haunted—her friends fear the worst. Shortly thereafter, their fears are confirmed.

Suspicion naturally falls on Keigo at first, even though Yoshino's claim that they were dating was pure fantasy. The fact that he left town immediately after Yoshino's murder made things look worse for him. However, Shuichi Yoshida isn't interested in hiding the killer's identity. He limits the suspect pool to two men.

The other suspect, Yuich Shimizu, is a construction worker who lives with his grandparents and likes to go for long drives in his car, particularly over Mitsue Pass. He's the book's most enigmatic character. In explaining his personality, Yoshida invokes the Japanese word "hikikomori," which describes young people who voluntarily withdraw from society. Yuichi isn't completely withdrawn, but he is incommunicative with his relatives and co-workers. His mother abandoned him on a wharf when he was young and he's had little contact with her until recently. His only "romantic" relationship was with a masseuse with whom he eventually became obsessed. He comes to police attention because his number appears on Yoshino's cell phone—he was one of her client-dates.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Villain is public reaction to Yoshino's murder. People phone and fax insulting messages to her parents, telling them she deserved to die because of her trashy reputation. Journalists camp out in front of the Ishibashi's house, harassing them for weeks after the murder. The book also has a light supernatural element when her father travels up Mitsue Pass in the hopes of finding his deceased daughter's ghost.

Though the book is told in third person, many of the characters are given passages in first person, providing readers with deeper access to their thoughts, histories and motivations.

The story veers off in a different direction when Mitsuyo, a lonely young woman who works in the men's clothing department of a store, reaches out to Yuichi to re-establish a long-dormant relationship. The two meet up and Mitsuyo soon learns what Yuichi did. Instead of running away, she joins forces with him on a desperate and futile attempt to flee the police. They have little money and no resources, so the outcome of their Bonnie and Clyde relationship is never in doubt. 

Stories where young women become fascinated by wanted criminals seem to be common in Japanese fiction: a similar scenario is portrayed in Natsuo Kirino's Real World. Both authors intimate that loneliness and alienation are the hallmarks of the country's youth.

One issue the book has is the translation, particularly of the dialog. Translating is a balancing act between capturing the idiom of the original language and recreating it in the vernacular of the new language.  Readers unfamiliar with the culture of the foreign language may well wonder what the words sound like to a native. In Villain, the dialog of the younger people sounds awkward and stilted, artificially shallow and carefree. Perhaps that was intentional on the author's part, or maybe it's an artifact of the translation.

Though Villain, published in Japanese as Akunin in 2007, is Yoshida's seventh book, it is his first to be translated into English. It's a crime novel, but not a procedural or whodunit. Police officers are on the case, but their investigation is not the main focus. Instead, Yoshida concentrates on the effects the crime has on the victim's family and friends, as well as on Yuichi and his family.

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