Book Review

Lady Joker by Kaoru Takamura

half of a crime novel

translated by Marie Iida & Allison Markin Powell

cw: gore, suicide ideation, depression

It’s been a while since I read a massive thriller, and it’s been a while since I read a multi volume novel.

///

2 days ago there was a dead rat lying close to the door in the building I live in, on the outside.

From the stomach of the dead rat something – or someone – had pulled its intestines until they stretched in an unbroken circuit across the ground well over a metre in length. This morning, the rat is gone, but its guts remain. This is kind of how I feel.

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It’s been a while since I’ve read a massive thriller. Or has it? I don’t remember.

I’m working again, which means I don’t really have time to do anything of any consequence, either to me or to the world at large.

It’s been several weeks, but it’s yet to be a full calendar month, so I sit, still, slightly deeper in the red then I would like to be. I do not live to work, I do not work to live, I work that I may not live, I suppose, I work that I have an excuse to continue failing to do the things that I wish I were doing.

I work that I have an excuse to read giant thrillers, rather than books that are impactful, powerful, good. I work that I need not feel bad that I haven’t had a poetry acceptance for months, that I never managed to find a publisher for my second collection while I wasn’t working over the summer.

///

Lady Joker is a freshly translated Japanese thriller, originally published in 1997, written by the acclaimed Japanese novelist (tho new to the English speaking world with this volume) Kaoru Takamura and it too explores ideas around the emptiness, pointlessness and detachment that inevitably comes from the way in which the majority of us live the majority of the time: most of our waking hours are wasted, spent in the pursuit of productivity, but a productivity that isn’t soulful.

A group of five lad friends join up to do crime: one who was bored and retired and feels like he never did anything with his life; one a truck driver in young middle age struggling with a heavily disabled child; one an organised-crime-adjacent finance guy; one an underpaid and over skilled engineer who was recently the victim of a workplace accident; and the 5th is a jaded and over the hill police officer who was shifted out to the countryside after his youthful optimism and enthusiasm irritated his gently corrupt superiors.

The five men meet regularly at a racetrack to bet on horses, with the truck driver’s daughter often in attendance too. Years go by and personal, national, financial tragedies befall them and the people around them, until eventually the lads decide – as a group – to extort a corporation for cash. They choose the fictional brewing magnate Hinode beer.

Much like JFK’s favourite novel, From Russia, With Love, the first half of the novel focuses on these lad criminals as they build their motives and then their plans, while the second half focuses on the President of Hinode beer (who the lads kidnap), two journalists investigating the case and a detective who, very similarly to the detective involved in the crime, has ended up working in the sticks due to rubbing up his colleagues the wrong way (this isn’t a frottage reference). While the first demoted detective (the one who’s gone corporate extortionist) is motivated by ego and spite to get one over on a society that he feels failed to appreciate him, the second one (the square who still wants to stop crimes) may have lost faith in the institution he works for, but has not lost faith in himself and his square opinion that crime (even like non-violent kidnap of a middle aged man!) is always bad. 👶👶👶

However, it fails to be seen if his optimism is well placed, because just as things are kicking off, the book ends.

I don’t know if Lady Joker was published in two volumes with a year in between each part as seems to be happening here in the UK, and though I could look this up, I don’t really have enough time to cuddle my dog at the moment, so I’m not going to spend any time googling books I’ve already read until I’m unemployed again, whenever that will be.

Lady Joker: Volume One doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it doesn’t end at the conclusion of an episode, it doesn’t end with a shift or a change, it just pauses in the middle of the story.

Honestly, it’s pretty frustrating, as the pacing of the book gradually increases and by the time I neared its 600 page (yeah, it’s a big one!) anti-conclusion, I was pretty keen to see how the extortion plot was executed, and if the five friends would get away with their well-thought-through plan to skim money away from some corrupt corporate types.

If Lady Joker: Volume Two had already been published in paperback, I’d probably read it straight away. It hasn’t been, and I enjoyed this book a lot, in its detail of Japanese journalistic, police and corporate procedures. However, I can’t imagine I will be gagging to reenter its world next summer. Maybe I will be, maybe I’ll be dead by then already. Maybe I will have had my guts pulled out and left on the Tottenham pavement with the rest of my body mysteriously absent. Maybe that, maybe death, would be freeing.

Though can it really be considered death when this really can’t be considered life?

Nov 2022

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