No 416 The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, Book 1 of #20booksofsummer21

My 20 Books of Summer reading kicked off this week with a tantalising slice of philosophical Japanese crime fiction that raised more questions than it answered.

The novel tells the story of the titular thief, a veteran pickpocket who is adept at targeting rich marks in the wealthiest districts. Looking just like his victims in his tailored suit, he weaves through the large Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets with an ease that is astonishing. It is a low-risk and high reward career but it has also left him detached from other people, with no close connections or bonds. His only real connection is with a young boy who has been forced into stealing by his mother, and is taken under the wing of the thief as a kind of shoplifter’s apprentice

Reaching out my hands to steal, I had turned my back on everything, rejected community, rejected wholesomeness and light. I had built a wall around myself and lived by sneaking into the gaps in the darkness of life.

He does however, have a past, which is about to catch up with him. His one-time pickpocketing partner Ishikawa appears back in his life, presenting him with the offer of a job he’d be mad to refuse. Ishikawa offers him a life-changing sum of money to be part of a gang who will tie up and burgle an old man’s safe. It sounds simple and risk-free and indeed, the plan goes off without a hitch. But the thief’s reservations are well founded as the old man, who turns out to be an influential politician, is found dead, just days after the robbery. Suddenly the thief finds himself drawn deeper into a world of crime, where he is forced to complete three assignments by top crime boss Kizaki in order to save his own life.  

The Thief is a tight and economical novel, and despite the subject matter has a slow and philosophical atmosphere. The depiction of Tokyo itself is stunning, focusing on the back alleys, and packed underground stations where anonymity is a way of life and true connection is almost impossible. There is a pervasive sense of existential dread from the beginning, which only grows as the thief tries to complete the tasks set by the crime boss and emerge from the mess in which he has become entangled.

The novel explores themes of loneliness, fate and coincidence, theft and ownership, all without sacrificing its gritty noir realism. It is a cold novel though, keeping the reader at arm’s length and never quite succumbing to emotion or catharsis. The thief is never named, he reflects on a woman called Saeko, about whom we learn nothing, and he is haunted by the image of a tower that he could see from his childhood bedroom window, always overlooking and overshadowing his life.

When I was young, there was always a tower in the distance…Covered in mist, its outline vague, like a spire in some ancient daydream. Solemn, beautiful, exotic, so tall I couldn’t see the top and so far away that no matter how long I walked, I’d never reach it.

It is all very esoteric and ambiguous and how much you enjoy the novel will depend on accepting unanswered questions and appreciating open-ended imagery. The Thief is beautifully translated by Satoko Izumo & Stephen Coates who capture the mood of alienation and isolation to perfection.

I enjoyed The Thief very much. It is not a conventional crime novel, but uses the tropes of the genre to create an ambiguous, intelligent and engrossing exploration of life on the margins.


20 Books of Summer novels in translation

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

34 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Would definitely be interested in reading this one. The tone you describe is similar to the book Evil and the Mask by him. Yes, there’s a crime but there’s also more about the philosophy of the why. Enjoyed your review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds interesting, and I’m tempted to pick it up. I’ve been attracted to Japanese crime novels ever since reading Hideo Yokoyama’s “Six Four” and then a collection of his novellas. Thanks for this great review, introducing me to a new Japanese author!


  3. I’ve read this one and it made me absolutely paranoid about being pickpocketed on the tube! Lol. I’ve read four of his books now … they are all very dark and quite chilling … but this one is by far his best.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done on having read and reviewed your first book for the 20 Books of Summer 2021 challenge already! I am very close to finishing my re-read of Eragon by Christopher Paolini, which will be my first book for the challenge, so not feeling too bad. 😊


  5. Thanks for sharing your review of The Thief, Cathy. It’s great to try out different types of books. I’m not sure I’ve read any Japanese fiction. I see that The Thief has received a lot of praise. 1 down, 19 to go!


  6. Well done for getting started (my first review for 20Books is out on Tuesday and I’ve started my second read). This does sound an interesting twist on the crime novel and so atmospheric.


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