Book review: ‘People Who Eat Darkness’ is a masterful true crime tale

People Who Eat Darkness

The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up

Richard Lloyd Parry

FSG Originals: 464 pp., $16 paper


Americans have an advantage in reading “People Who Eat Darkness” — we are less likely to know about Lucie Blackman. The blond Brit was 21 when she disappeared in Japan in 2000; the months-long search for her made headlines in both Japan and England. Unlike readers there, we have an extra level of suspense — we don’t know what happened to Lucie — although we will by the middle of this masterful literary true crime story, which earns its comparisons to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.”

Lucie Blackman was a middle-class English girl who was dissatisfied with her flight attendant job with British Airways. She moved with her best friend, Louise Phillips, to Japan, where they hoped to make a better living.

Lucie and Louise had taken jobs as hostesses at a bar in Tokyo’s nightclub-filled Roppongi district catering to Japanese businessmen who wanted to mix with English-speaking Caucasian women. Lucie’s job was to drink, flatter and make conversation with the guests. She was given bonuses for extra bottles of liquor they bought and for the off-site dinners they treated her to. The services ended there.

In clear and fascinating detail, Richard Lloyd Parry explains the dizzying suite of social and sexual offerings in Roppongi, of which hostesses held a generally chaste position. Parry, a longtime British journalist based in Japan, knows exactly when to provide cultural or historical background to understand the shades of a story that is most interesting in its complexity.

On a Saturday, Lucie left to have lunch with a client of the club and never returned.

The police brushed off Louise’s concerns, all but saying that Lucie was off on a tryst. First, Lucie’s sister Sophie, then her father, Tim, flew to Japan and launched a missing-persons campaign, leveraging the help of the British Consulate. They set up a phone line for tips about Lucie’s whereabouts; posters went up around the city; they held regular press conferences. Media flocked from England.

Tim’s resolve to find his daughter manifested in atypical ways — he drank with reporters in the bar of the hotel they shared, and his demeanor was more determined than despairing. While Tim’s unique personality was the engine behind the continued media coverage of the case, over time, it came to rub some players the wrong way. Parry, who has a native sympathy for Tim, lays out the full picture of him: brave, misunderstood and sometimes wrongheaded.

Meanwhile, Lucie’s mother, Jane — estranged from Tim since their divorce — made her own trips to Japan, also calling for her daughter’s safe return. It is to Parry’s credit that he earned the trust of both parents, whose split was so acrimonious that Jane has sued Tim over the trust established in Lucie’s name.

Parry describes the slow-to-start and painstaking process the police used to track down the man who picked up Lucie, which included sifting through records of thousands of phone calls. One of the most tragic aspects of the story is not that they couldn’t find him — they did — but that they’d spoken to him in the doorway of his apartment the day after Lucie’s disappearance, after a complaint about a disturbance. And they’d been alerted before to his activities: A few brave hostesses had previously come forward to say they had been drugged and raped by him. The police had never followed up.

When they arrested Joji Obara, the evidence was in front of them: He drugged women and then videotaped himself raping them while they were unconscious. He kept a log over decades listing his activities, which he called “conquest play,” including which drugs he used to what effect; in court, he maintained that the log was fiction.

The Japanese court system, Parry explains, has a high success rate for prosecutors (more than 99%), but it also has a strong tradition and expectation of confession. In this case, Obara refused to confess.

Despite Parry’s evident reporting skills, Obara remains an enigma. An ethnic Korean born in Japan — Zainichi — he twice legally changed his name. He inherited his wealth from his father, who owned pachinko gambling parlors and parking lots, and invested in real estate. He drove expensive cars, even when his businesses were in trouble.

The police had evidence that Obara had met Lucie and even sent them letters after she’d gone missing that included her forged signature saying she was alive and well. She had been dead all along — but it had taken the police seven months to find her remains. She was buried near Obara’s apartment, the one the police had visited, where a witness had seen him that night with a shovel. She had been dismembered, her head encased in concrete. “Either the police had conspired in a misguided cover-up that had resulted in the decay of precious forensic evidence,” Parry writes, “or they had achieved the same result through scarcely credible oversight and incompetence.”

Much of the book includes the false starts and failed hopes of the family’s investigation and the somewhat alien process of the case through the Japanese court system. Obara went to prison for a handful of provable cases of drugging and rape, and for a killing — not of Lucie Blackman but of Carita Ridgeway, an Australian model whose cause of death came to light only after Obara’s arrest. She had suffered liver failure at age 22, and Obara, using a false name, had not only dropped her at the hospital but had also later met with her parents, giving them gifts to express his sympathy. That was in 1992, eight years and dozens of druggings and rapes before Lucie’s death.

Like the case of Etan Patz, the Lucie Blackman disappearance captured the public imagination. By writing about it in such culturally informed detail, Parry subtly encourages an understanding that goes past the headlines. It is a dark, unforgettable ride.