History, folklore and ancient taboos are interwoven seamlessly with a modern-day mystery in Mo Hayder’s third book, The Devil of Nanking (republished as Tokyo in some countries). This story begins with Grey, a young Englishwoman, arriving penniless in Tokyo and nursing a major obsession concerning the horrifying events surrounding the 1937 Japanese invasion of China: specifically their six week systematic rape of Nanking. She has traveled to Japan to find an elderly Chinese professor said to have rare footage of the massacre that has a specific bit of information (though the reader is not privy - at first - to what it is) that has driven her obsession. In exchange for the film, Grey agrees to try to unearth information about a life-saving medicine used by an ailing Japanese gangster. Having no idea what dangers she’s gotten herself into, Grey submerges herself into Yakuza crime and probes at parts of the past that were never supposed to be remembered. Hayder alternates between professor Chongming's wrenching account of his experiences in 1930s Nanking and Grey's unwholesome adventures as a hostess in contemporary Tokyo.
Mo Hayder, for the uninitiated, is a diabolically gifted British crime novelist. She is the author of eight novels, all of which have debuted with wide spread acclaim, despite their often violent and disturbing content. The Devil of Nanking is her third novel and her first historical fiction. Mo left school at the age of fifteen and in the years leading up to her career as a writer, she took a job in Tokyo as a hostess in a high-end night club, which inspired parts of The Devil of Nanking. The segments about the Nanking massacre were inspired by the late Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking, in which Chang writes about the hugely forgotten atrocities that occurred in Nanking. Mo Hayder uses these atrocities to add an extra dose of horror as the story unfolds: a story that is more about the horrors that people do to one another rather than anything supernatural.
Personally, the best parts of this book for me were the characters. The Devil of Nanking’s characters are an interesting mish-mash of personal demons and macabre pasts. Grey, the main character, is a fragile and - for the most part - disturbed young woman, bearing both physical and emotional scars that reach from her childhood living under her overprotective mother to her years in a mental hospital for an act of depravity as a teenager. For a large portion of the book she seems to be flawed past the point of ever considering herself ‘normal’ again. Then of course there is the supporting cast that goads her on and pushes everything into the extreme. There’s Jason, an American with a pre-occupation with death and a sexual fetish for ‘weirdos’ like Grey, a pair of Russian twins who are superstitious hostesses, and Shi Chongming an elderly Chinese man who holds an awful secret about the Nanking Massacre. The stories two main antagonists are Junzo Fuyuki, the ailing gangster with the mysterious medicine that Grey has been employed to uncover, and Ogawa, Junzo’s lurking, transvestite bodyguard / nurse with a tendency for gruesome violence. Combine these strange and unusual characters with an array of bizarre settings and the overall compellingly disturbing plot of the novel, and you have a wonderful showcase for the characters and their actions.
The themes that drive The Devil of Nanking, like its characters, are complicated and superbly thought out. Guilt and the evils of ignorance are the weightiest, as both Grey and Shi Chongming fight to conquer them. Near the end of the novel these themes then evolve into the separate entities of evil, ignorance, and acceptance as Shi Chongming and Grey are able to let go of their negative feelings about their pasts and accept their collective losses by simply admitting that they were not part of something evil but that they were just acting out of ignorance themselves. The Devil of Nanking is written in such away that all the themes are presented before you right from the beginning of the story but - in a way - it’s all down to you to bring them together: your grade twelve English teacher could have a hay-day telling you all the things she thinks this book means.
Overall, it all comes down to how wonderfully this novel comes together; how all the little mysteries introduced throughout combine into a white-knuckle climax. The further you read (and trust me when I say it won’t take you long to devour this book) the more the two narratives become more and more engrossing as they gradually and ghoulishly intertwine. Hayder uses the four hundred pages in this novel miraculously as she introduces characters that will have you rooting for them one page and disgusted by them the next. Her writing style will leave you breathless as she elegantly overloads your senses with the places, the personalities, and the horrors of the past and present.
My final thoughts on The Devil of Nanking is that you should read it: now. Ideally, everyone should read everything that Mo Hayder has done and will do in the future, but start with this one. Of course since this is my favourite book of all time done by one of my favourite authors, I’m biased, but there are still many reasons why anyone who’s never read or even heard of Mo Hayder should pick up this book. Hayder writes with beautiful, stirring prose that can captivate and disturb all at the same time. She does a fantastic job of conjuring up the look and feel of Tokyo while weaving in a bit of mysticism. She’s done her research, and pre-World War 2 China come alive in Shi Chongming’s portions of the story. As a warning: if you normally can’t stomach gratuitous violence and graphic deaths, this book will make you squirm. But the story, the characters, and Mo Hayder’s brilliant way with words will be well worth it in the end: this is a story that resonates long after the last page has been turned.