Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $25.95
David Peace raids fact for fiction, churning history and elements of his own life into hypnotic postmodern noir of almost unrivaled fury. His first four novels, which make up the “Red Riding Quartet” (adapted for television in Britain last year and reissued in paperback by Vintage), were a passionate rethinking of a central horror/myth from Peace’s north of England upbringing: the decade-long search for serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.
Then, in “GB84,” Peace went to town on the strike in which then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took on the National Union of Miners. His most successful book, “The Damned United” (made into a movie last year), is about the disastrous 44-day stint in which Brian Clough, a legendary, arrogant and alcoholic football (soccer) coach, took control of the powerhouse team that was then Leeds United -- and set about destroying it.
These subjects are not just English but determinedly and even pigheadedly provincial -- obsessive reinventions of an author’s youth. But on graduation from college, Peace spent 15 years teaching in Japan, and his most recent books in some way spring from that, while delving further back in time. His new novel “Occupied City” (the second in a projected trilogy, the first part of which was " Tokyo Year Zero”) situates itself in an environment all but razed by war and investigates, gnaws at, mushrooms out of, the circumstances of a horrible true crime. Expect to be enthralled and maybe amazed, although not cheered up or even necessarily entertained.
It’s 1948. A man, planning a heist but bearing the credentials of a government medical officer, walks into a Tokyo bank and tells everyone there that he’s been sent to inoculate them against an outbreak of dysentery. They buy into it. Why wouldn’t they? But the medicine he makes them swallow turns out to be swift-acting poison, and 12 people die in agony.
That actually happened, and Peace, a gifted fictional ventriloquist, takes us inside the mental extremities of characters scarred or destroyed by this event, their thought processes, their turmoil and torment. Acknowledging the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa and the film “Rashômon” that Akira Kurosawa derived from them, Peace re-creates mass murder, its aftermath and its causes through 12 voices. One is a survivor, who says “and now I see everyone rushing for the sink, for the tap, for the water, and now I am rushing for the sink, for the tap, for the water, and now I see people falling to the floor, and now I see Miss Akiyama lying on the floor, and now I am trying to reach her but I need the sink, the tap, the water. . . .”
“Occupied City” gives us the stories of a victim (speaking from beyond the grave), a journalist, an American officer looking into Japan’s development of biological weapons in World War II, a Soviet soldier who witnessed the effects of that, two detectives (one of them bored, the other going crazy) and an occult detective who notes: “Out in the streets, I see policemen, their hats soaked black and their boots stained white, trampling over our neighborhood; our neighborhood cursed and stained by His crime . . . North to South, they are tearing apart the entire city; East to West, twenty thousand detectives searching for the Killer.”
These various shreds, fragments and competing voices are being pieced together by a writer hellbent on chasing a truth that seems to disappear in front of his eyes like a candle being snuffed out. The novel has an agenda, proclaiming the innocence of the man, an artist, who was convicted of this dreadful crime and pinning the blame on somebody returned from Unit 31, Japan’s secret wartime chemical weapons project in Manchuria: “On the Black Ship, the Killer sees it stretched out now before him; the Occupied City; its sewers and streets, its homes and its shops. . . . This city is a monstrous place; a Deathtopia of fleas and flies, of rats and men.”
Like James Ellroy (a primary influence, obviously, both here and especially in the “Red Riding Quartet”), Peace sees cover-up and conspiracy, and he obsesses about secret histories. Unlike Ellroy, Peace offers little in the way of humor to lighten the relentless darkness of his vision. He’s very good on shades of character and the various styles of his prose rely on rhythm and incantatory repetition rather than hard-boiled fizz and pop:
“At twenty minutes past three on Monday, 26 January 1948, in Tokyo, and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and I am drinking and now, we run and we retch, we stagger, and we stumble, and we begin to fall and to fall. . . .”
That’s 12 times “I am drinking,” one for each dead victim -- clever, although after a few pages of this the reader starts to feel drunk too. That’s part of Peace’s objective, no doubt, and “Occupied City” really does induce a druggy, addictive feel. Tokyo is seen in sideways glimpses: perceived as a mulch of nightmare from which the world’s most contemporary city will somehow emerge: “In the Occupied City, the minutes and the hours, the days and the weeks, the months and the years will pass. But in the Perplexed City, the Posthumous City, between two places, the minutes and the hours, the days and the weeks, the months and the years will not pass.”
Ghosts haunt us, in other words, and in seeking to escape the past we only go back there. Hardly any writer can invoke T.S. Eliot and “The Waste Land” and expect to get away with it, but Peace does. He’s an original and ambitious writer. “Occupied City,” although morose and sometimes pretentious, takes no prisoners in its determination to scare and haunt.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place” and writes the Paperback Writers column at www.latimes.com/books.