Out, by Natsuo Kirino

Tokyo noir. I asked for more workplaces and certainly get one here: vivid descriptions of working the night shift in a factory that makes boxed lunches. Kirino sucks in the reader with detailed descriptions of the inspection process before the employees start work, the smell of the different foodstuffs to be assembled, and the way the line works.

Four women have banded together to support each other and make the line run more efficiently. Their ages and characters vary widely but all struggle in the traps their lives have become, watching their families disintegrate.

At 43, Masako has learned to walk alone, her natural reserve having hardened into an enigmatic shell. Her teenaged son has not spoken for three years, since being expelled from school, and her husband has withdrawn into his own world as well, sleeping in another room and rarely speaking to her. The co-worker who runs the line is Yoshie, a widow in her late fifties, whom they call the Skipper. She is barely scraping by financially, and cares for her rebellious, teenaged daughter and invalid mother-in-law. The descriptions of changing the old woman’s diaper—cloth because Yoshie cannot afford disposable diapers—bring back memories of when my children were babies.

The youngest at 29, Kuniko, is deeply in debt. Never one to postpone gratification, she is overweight and lusts after designer clothes and shoes. As the story begins, her husband takes all their savings and disappears, leaving her with no way to pay off her debts, even if she were inclined to do so. The fourth woman, Yayoi, is 34 and quite lovely. However, the strain of taking care of two small children has driven a wedge between her and her husband, who has fallen for a hostess in a gambling club. When Yayoi discovers that he has gambled away all their savings and complains, he becomes physically abusive.

I’ve rarely encountered such memorable characters. Men don’t come off very well in this book, most of them selfish and greedy, intent on using women as toys that can be abandoned when you get bored. I’ve certainly known my share of irresponsible men, but I don’t think it is a universal trait by any means, nor one necessarily linked to the y-chromosome, so I was relieved to see at least one thoughtful and responsible male character, a young worker at the factory, half-Brazilian and half-Japanese.

Although I often read hard-boiled crime fiction, some of which is pretty gruesome (think: Minette Walters, Dennis Lehane), no book has disturbed me as much as this one. I found that I could not even read it in the evening or my dreams would be simply horrendous. It wasn’t the level of gore that disturbed me; hey, I laughed at the wood chipper in Fargo. No, what horrified me were the psychological changes that the murder caused in all of the characters.

Most mysteries follow the detective who is trying to solve the crime. A few might interpolate a chapter now and then from the evil murderer’s point of view. But Kirino stays almost exclusively with the murderer and the murderer’s accomplices, all of whom react to their first murder and the stress of the police investigation in ways that surprised me. Surprised me? No, they staggered me. I had no idea that the human psyche could go down those paths. Yet, with Kirino leading me by the hand, I found each step completely believable.

I recommend this book with caution. It is a murder mystery like no other.

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