Book review: Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven

There is fiction that is entirely make believe. Then there is fiction that has its basis in fact and the historical record. Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven, in the tradition of political thrillers, is situated firmly in the latter group.

Return to Hiroshima

About Return to Hiroshima

Xavier Douterloigne, the son of a Belgian diplomat, returns to Hiroshima, where he spent his youth, to come to terms with the death of his sister.
Inspector Takeda finds a deformed baby lying dead at the foot of the Peace Monument, a reminder of Hiroshima’s war history.
A Yakuza-lord, rumored to be the incarnation of the Japanese demon Rokurobei, mercilessly defends his criminal empire against his daughter Mitsuko, whom he considers insane.
And the punk author Reizo, obsessed by the ultra-nationalistic ideals of his literary idol Mishima, recoils at nothing to write the novel that will “overturn Japan’s foundations”….
Hiroshima’s indelible war-past simmers in the background of this ultra-noir novel.
Clandestine experiments conducted by Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 during WWII are unveiled and leave a sinister stain on the reputation of the imperial family and Japanese society.

My thoughts

I have a healthy appetite for noir fiction and found Return to Hiroshima a sumptuous and wonderfully grotesque feast. Centred in Hiroshima and written for a Western audience, Van Laerhoven paints a vivid and dark portrait of Japan, its culture and society, and an equally vivid and dark portrait, both immediate and fifty years on, of the aftermath of Little Boy – the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

Through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, the reader enters a deep-state reality, shadowy, deceptive, peppered with lies and brutality. The author slowly reveals in short sharp chapters, the twisted and corrupt interplays at work behind the scenes as Japan endures a cataclysmic economic crisis. The novel is set partly amid the abandoned high rises built atop the coal mines of Hashima Island near Nagasaki, where Mitsuko wrestles with the reality she is forced to endure, dominated by her monstrous father and mafia-boss, so-called Rokurobei. She escapes to Hiroshima and forms a friendship with Yori, whose drug-crazed and maniacal boyfriend, Reizo, is at work on his novel in a squat in a disused warehouse.

Soon, the reader meets German photographer Beate Becht, Belgian graduate Xavier Douterloigne and maverick police inspector, Takeda. Each shines a spotlight on Hiroshima, and each is of course instrumental to the plot. What unfolds is on one level a straight ahead race to save Mitsuko from danger and reveal hidden truths. On a deeper level, Return to Hiroshima challenges authorised versions of events and their causes and perpetrators, those versions reported by the press.

Superbly written in an easy, fluid style with characters that are complex and believable, Return to Hiroshima contains a taut and artfully constructed plot. The reader is kept on edge. At any moment the tension will release. Eventually it does, dramatically yet incrementally, intertwined with revelation upon revelation, carrying the reader through to the last page.

While there are a few confronting scenes in this novel, with various victims meeting their awful ends, the ultimate victim in Return to Hiroshima is truth, at once laid bare by the narrator and distorted by the characters. Driving the plot are themes of memory and remembering, childhood trauma and unhealed wounds. Gruesome mutations caused by the atomic bomb are set alongside those caused by secret medical experiments. In all, Return to Hiroshima is an elaborate and insightful depiction of obsession.

Younger readers may not recall the sarin attack in a Tokyo subway that took place in March 1995, and the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo who claimed responsibility. They may not know of Unit 731 and the atrocities the Japanese meted out in WWII on their prisoners of war, atrocities ignored by the West as we focus all our attention on the Nazis. Cruelty is a global phenomenon, then as now. In addressing this, Return to Hiroshima and its author deserve to be acclaimed.  An intelligent and compelling read.

 

Find a copy of Return to Hiroshima on Amazon

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Book review: Her Name is Mercie by Chris Roy

The joy of writing book reviews is stumbling on good stories, well told. When the stories take your breath away, all the better! Here is my review of one Her Name is Mercie, a collection of short stories by Chris Roy.

“Mercie Hillbrook lives a simple, quiet life working as a gas station attendant. Then her parents are killed. Her home is taken. The people responsible are excused for just doing their job. When an attempt to get justice her way lands her in trouble with the law, Mercie realizes she still has something to lose: her own life.

Then she finds reason to believe her parents were murdered… and she doesn’t care anymore.”

My thoughts:

As the cover suggests, Her Name is Mercie is a dark and thrilling ride, the lead story, almost novella length, an edge of seat experience that demands to be read in one sitting. Roy does not let his readers stray from his pages. He has you right there with the action, living it, feeling it. Mercie and her sidekick are likeable characters, and through their eyes, from the initial story set up to the dramatic ending, Roy explores the theme of injustice. Hard and racy and thoroughly entertaining, ‘Her Name is Mercie’ contains a perfect story arc. The writing is vivid and controlled, Roy demonstrating poise and restraint even as he delivers the gruesome details.

All the elements of a good short story are present throughout the collection; with writing that is taut and punchy, sparse and edgy, and with plenty of twists and turns and unexpected and satisfying endings. There are moments of visceral horror yet the horror element is never overplayed. A good craftsman, Roy sets his scenes with acute observations and a minimum of detail and a healthy measure of wit.

The second story, ‘Re-Pete’ is a gem. Told from the perspective of a young child with OCD, the result of a ghastly and recent trauma, the tale is funny and absurd, and packs a delightfully wicked punch, if ‘delightful’ can be used in the context. Roy enters the mind of young Pete with sensitivity and compassion. Pete, like the other protagonists in the collection, deserves better than the life he has been given.

Themes of justice and corruption and revenge against wrongdoers dominate the collection. In Her Name is Mercie, Roy’s protagonists, the victims of bad deeds, step into their own power.

Roy clearly has a gift, invoking in his readers immediate and deep engagement. With this collection he has thrown down the gauntlet, meeting the challenge of originality and displaying prowess across multiple styles – spooky, sinister, surreal, brutal and ironic – each story is distinct. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Review: The Blood Red Experiment

My journey into dark fiction just keeps getting better. What is it that draws the reader into the realm of the macabre? I guess the answer to that is different for everyone, but for me, uppermost is the application of top-class literary skills.

“Inspired by the genius of Hitchcock and his films, latin luminaries such as Argento and Bava directed macabre murder-mystery thrillers, that combined the suspense with scenes of outrageous violence, stylish cinematography, and groovy soundtracks. This genre became known in their native Italy as giallo.

Giallo is Italian for yellow, inspired by the lurid covers of thrillers, in the way that pulp fiction was derived from the cheap wood pulp paper of the crime stories, or Film Noir came from the chiaroscuro of the German Expressionistic lighting.

We at TBRE want to bring gialli-inspired stories by some of the best crime writers on the scene today to a wider audience, giving birth to a new literary movement in crime writing, NeoGiallo, and drag this much maligned genre screaming and slashing its way into the 21st Century.”

*****

My entry into NeoGiallo has been rewarded with this superb collection. Edited by Jason Michel and Craig Douglas, The Blood Red Experiment is a well laid out magazine with a healthy noir vibe. Many of the stories are first instalments of serialised works, a smart move on the part of the editors, as those stories are compelling and leave the reader wanting more, rendering The Blood Red Experiment a collectible, a must-have for any noir-loving fan.

The opening story, ‘Machine Factory’ by Richard Godwin, is about as confronting as it gets inside the mind of a psychopathic killer. Unrelenting, vivid and artistic in its execution, I am in admiration of the author for his ability to enter into the pathology of macabre glorification and can only hope the protagonist is not his ‘Mr Hyde’. Godwin display his literary talents in evocative descriptions:

“I will escape it and find otherness like a black widow spider clutching with unreal feet at the empty window pane of time.”

‘Machine Factory’ contains a satisfying twist, one that entices the reader to start back at the beginning.

Every story in The Blood Red Experiment is worth a mention. Mark Cooper’s intriguing ‘Quaenam in Illis’, the tale of an out-of-work linguist used by a mysterious group to decipher ancient writings, pulls the reader into a seedy Paris underworld. Kate Laity’s ‘Maddona of the Wasps’ is a rich and tantalising tale of erotic desire and gore, as a dominatrix uses her minion, a slave to his own lust. In ‘Didn’t Bleed Red,’ Tom Leins makes use of a reflexive giallo motif, as his private investigator protagonist comes face to face with a grotesquely overweight, red-faced man who calls himself The Auctioneer. Jack Bates displays impressive narrative control and provides an unexpected twist in his confronting tale, ‘Canvas of Flesh’. Then there’s James Shaffer’s chilling and tense ‘Blood of the Lamb’, a story in which even the light bleeds; and Kevin Berg’s sensual and literary ‘L Impermanenza Dell’Art’, a story that takes searching for inspiration in an art class to a whole new level.

The high literary standard that can be found in the dark-fiction genre never fails to please, and the standard of writing in The Blood Red Experiment is excellent. The authors are adept at creating evocative metaphors and captivating imagery, and display all the artistry of good prose, brought to bear on the gruesome side of life.  Dripping noir from every page crease, the hallmark of this issue is dark sensuality, the sort only good writing can achieve. Every author is engaged in a dance of seduction with the reader. The Blood Red Experiment is a privilege to read. My only critical remark is the shortage of women writers in the mix.

Grab your copy here