Mo Hayder

"The Devil of Nanking"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 22, 2006)

"Ignorance is not the same as insanity.  It's not the same as perversion, or evil, or any of the other things you could accuse me of.  Some people are crazy and others are sick, and there are others still who are evil or freaky or whatever you call it.  But this is very important. They are not the same as the ignorant."

A disturbed, young British woman arrives in Tokyo from what may have been a long hospitalization in a psychiatric unit.  Known only as Grey, the woman has been hoping for nine years to find a piece of film recording the Nanking Massacre in China by the Japanese in 1937, a massacre of 300,000 people, which the Japanese deny happened.  She is looking for a specific bit of information, though the reader is not privy, at first, to what this is.  Contacting Shi Chongming, an elderly Chinese professor at a Japanese university, whom she believes has the missing film, she agrees to try to unearth information he wants about a life-saving medicine used by an ailing Japanese gangster in exchange for information about the Nanking film.

Grey is a fragile and interesting character, bearing both physical and emotional scars, and when she is accepted as a hostess at the "Some Like it Hot" nightclub by the unforgettable Strawberry Nakatani, who believes herself to be a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, she meets the ailing gangster, Junzo Fuyuki.  Hayder's peripheral characters are intriguing:  Jason, an American with a pre-occupation with death and a sexual fetish for "weirdos" like Grey; a pair of Russian twins, who are also hostesses;  and Ogawa, the transvestite nurse of the gangster, who lurks in the background and acts as an enforcer.  The various settings, especially that of a falling-down house occupied by Grey, Jason, and the Russian twins, showcase the bizarre characters and their actions.

The point of view alternates between Grey, as she tries to gain control of her life by finding this mysterious piece of information about the Rape of Nanking, and that of Shi Chongming, who recounts in painful detail his memories of the Japanese invasion of  Nanking and the attempts that he, his wife Shujing, and his neighbors, the Lius, make to stay alive.  The author's ability to present both internal action and external terror is admirable, creating both tension and heart-stopping suspense, though she does resort to awkward foreshadowing to keep the reader going:  "I knew that the answer I wanted was very nearby," for example, and "I was sure, without knowing why, that just behind those blinds…." 

The plot and characters are intriguing for the first two-thirds of the book.  Then, as the exact nature of Grey's quest on behalf of Shi Chongming becomes clearer, the plot veers into sadism.  Sensational deaths and ankle-deep gore become discomforting (and, perhaps for some readers, nauseating), as Grey's shocking "crime," Fuyuki's pathology, and Shi Chongming's "sin" come together in dramatic fashion.  Not for the faint of heart, this pop novel is nightmare-inducing, filled with grotesque deaths, minutely described.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 27 reviews


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About the Author:

Mo HayderMo Hayder left school at fifteen. She worked as a barmaid, security guard, film-maker, hostess in a Tokyo club, educational administrator and teacher of English as a foreign language in Asia. She has an MA in film from The American University in Washington DC and an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University UK. She now writes full time.

Mo lives in Bath with partner Keith Quinn and their daughter.

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