Spoiler warning: This post contains some spoilers for People Who Eat Darkness after the initial synopsis. In my opinion, they won't ruin the book for you, but the choice is yours.
There are the tried and true staples of true crime, like Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s Helter Skelter and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Most crime aficionados have read these, or at least heard of them. They’re the books that made the deadly crimes they cover household knowledge. They successfully weave a specific kind of cultural narrative around the gruesome events at their centers.
There’s also the other end of the spectrum, where writers like Aphrodite Jones live, pumping out paperback after brightly colored paperback with titles like Cruel Sacrifice and The Embrace: A True Vampire Story. They’re like the romance novels of crime writing. Pulpy, sometimes not-that-well-written, and full of salacious facts. I’ve read plenty of both types, and we covered the latest true crime bestseller, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, on the podcast.
But there’s only one true crime book I’ve read twice, and I can’t even say that will be the last time. If you’re a true crime reader and you haven’t read this one yet, I’m gonna need you to get on that so we can talk about it. Seriously. I’m about to tell you why People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry is the best true crime book I’ve ever read.
Cool title. But what's it about?
First, a quick synopsis, with no spoilers outside of what’s in the basic book summary you’d see online: Lucie Blackman, a pretty, blond English girl, was 21 years old when she vanished in Tokyo while working as a bar hostess in 2000. Her mysterious disappearance set in motion a media frenzy in Japan and Great Britain, with Lucie’s tormented family caught right in the middle. After Lucie’s body was found months later, her killer’s trial period lasted for the next several years, with more and more of his violent acts coming to light. Here's why it's not your average true crime book.
It's the very definition of "immersive."
Richard Lloyd Parry isn't some washed-up writer who saw an opportune moment to cash in on a crime. He's a journalist who lived in Japan, became consumed by this case, and stuck it out until the bitter end, which was nearly a decade after the initial abduction. Parry spent most of his adult life in Japan, and he gets the reader fully immersed not only in Lucie's case, but also in Japanese culture. The more we as readers understand the culture of Tokyo, the more the narrative of Lucie's disappearance begins to take shape.
Parry gives a thorough and arresting picture of what Japan was like in 2000, but especially the bar and nightlife scene of the Roppongi area and the people who spend time there. Many of these people are businessmen who frequent bars like Casablanca, the one where Lucie worked. Parry helps us understand their motivations, their customs, and their interactions in a way that the average reporter would not have been able to. It's like reading a rich cultural history and a crime book at the same time. I found myself wishing all crime writing provided this much context. It offers a much more complete picture of the murder than we'd otherwise have, especially as Western readers.
Parry himself isn't on the outskirts of this case at all. He's very much involved with the Blackman family, and not only as he dives into their history and relationships. He's also right alongside Tim Blackman, Lucie's father, throughout the ups and downs of the search for his daughter. Parry feels like a character in this book, rather than a reporter on the outside looking in. Because of this, the reader feels like they really know Lucie and her troubled family. And they feel like they really know Joji Obara, the man who killed Lucie. Instead of letting Obara remain a shadowy figure, Parry exposes this man's life for what it was, and he doesn't shy away from making Obara's horrendous crimes very plain for the reader.
There are layers upon layers.
This crime just keeps unwinding. Starting with simple emails between Lucie and Obara and moving toward to the recovery of Lucie's dismembered body, each new finding in the case only leads the investigators to more questions and more violent crimes that have gone undiscovered for far too long.
People Who Eat Darkness goes so far beyond Lucie's murder once the investigation into Obara unearths the mysterious death of another young woman, Australian model Carita Ridgway, from 1992. As the connections between Carita, Lucie, and Joji Obara continue to surface (including some seriously messed up stuff from Obara's notebooks), the scope of Obara's crimes grows larger and larger. At more than one point during this book, I found myself in disbelief at the sheer volume of what this man kept hidden for so long. I won't give away anything else here. You'll have to read it to even grasp it.
Lucie is every 20-something girl.
The wanderlust, the debt, the need to explore, the just-on-the-wrong-side-of-danger fearlessness. Lucie is me at 21, without a doubt. If I'd had the opportunity to live abroad and work as a bar hostess, I'd probably have done it on a short-term basis, especially if my best friend came with me, as Lucie's did. And because Japan has a relatively low crime rate and there are rules in place in the bars and clubs, I doubt I would have felt threatened by the environment.
Reading Lucie's diaries and seenig her insecurities laid bare, you understand exactly why she is where she is. Maybe you've even had her same thoughts before. Maybe you'll hear an echo of yourself.
For me, some of the best true crime writing is the kind that reminds us how vulnerable humans can be and how fragile we are when we're up against a monster. Parry successfully does this though Carita and Lucie, two vibrant women whose lives were cut short almost by a pure chance encounter with evil incarnate. Once the whole narrative comes together, though, their stories read like a complex web of events and circumstances that somehow led them both to the same seemingly inevitable fate. That's a heavy feeling to walk away with, but good writing often makes us uncomfortable. And once we get comfortable with people like Joji Obara, we've lost our humanity.
Buy the book here from our most recent featured bookstore, Murder By The Book.
If you've read it, what did you think? What are you favorite true crime books? Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!