Review: THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura

I don’t think I’d have noticed let alone read this book if it hadn’t appeared on the list of titles eligible for this year’s International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction published in the UK and that would have been my loss. It’s a great reminder of why I follow this particular award more closely than any other; I am prompted to read more widely in terms of geography and style than I otherwise would do.*

THE THIEF is an odd book, not really fitting neatly into any of the crime genre’s boxes though it is, I suppose, closest to noir even though there is a bit too much overt metaphysical symbolism for it to fully conform to the necessary tropes . It recounts a short period in the life of a Japanese pickpocket who describes his daily ‘work’ (identifying victims and the various ruses used to steal their stuff) and how he gets caught up with a gang who coerce him into crimes he would not have chosen to commit. He also, somewhat reluctantly, befriends a young boy who he one day notices shoplifting with his mother and prevents the pair from being caught by a store detective.

There are several reasons why I should not have liked THE THIEF but in an almost ornery way my brain decided to be transfixed by it. Despite me. I am sure the fact that it is a teeny tiny book amongst a landslide of doorstop-sized tomes didn’t hurt.

I know I sound like an uncaring, middle class, cow but I’m not really fond of books told from the career criminal’s point of view. In most cases I’m not sympathetic to them, regardless of the real or imagined traumas that led them to their lives of crime, and I’m rarely swayed or intrigued by their angst or their revelling in the misery they inflict. So a story told by a pickpocket should not, on past experience, have engaged me at all but it did. It may have something to do with the fact that the eponymous thief (named only once as Nishimura) doesn’t delve deeply into the morality of his actions (aside from a claim to only steal from rich people) and certainly doesn’t spend time justifying himself. He is what he is and rather dispassionately tells his story which I somehow found more acceptable than the books which give lengthy reasons for a person becoming a life-long criminal. They always seem to boil down to “it’s not my fault I turned out this way” at which point I usually mumble “cry me a river” under my breath (I warned you I’d sound like a cow).

There is also, at least on the surface, is not a lot going on here in that rather than a major story arc the book concerns itself with an almost random slice of Nishimura’s life which is another reason I ought not to have been engrossed in the book as that kind of thing often irks me. But with THE THIEF almost immediately I did want to know what troubles would befall the narrator (there was never even a glimmer that his life would bring something other than troubles). Somehow his detachment and reserve made me hang on for the few tiny morsels that would provide insight into the man, his personal history and his ultimate fate.

Some of THE THIEF borders on the surreal, the female characters are prostitutes or dead (downtrodden women are a feature of all the Japanese crime fiction I have read) and the ending is as ambiguous as it gets which are all more reasons why I would normally not enjoy a book. And yet I listened to the whole thing in a single sitting almost without noticing the time passing. There are some things that don’t really work (I don’t care how downtrodden she is I didn’t for a moment ‘buy’ the character of the boy’s mother who at a point I won’t detail for fear of spoiling utters the line “what good are kids anyway” which did cause my eyes to roll) but overall I am glad to have read the book and would recommend to those prepared for something a little different.

*I see now that a delay in this book’s UK publication date has ruled it out of contention for this year’s award but I’m still glad to have read it (and can now I say I’ve started reading titles eligible for next year’s award).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

THE THIEF has been reviewed at International Noir Fiction, Mrs Wordopolis Reads and The Crime Segments

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Translators Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
Narrator Charlie Thurston
Publisher AudioGO [This edition 2012, original work 2009]
Length 4 hours 1 minute
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This entry was posted in book review, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Review: THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura

  1. Maxine says:

    Thanks, Bernadette, I don’t think this is out in the UK yet but based on your review (and its length!) I’ll check this one out, even though I hadn’t intended to read it. I don’t think it is middle class to dislike criminals or books from a criminal’s POV – the poor old middle class are people who work all their lives, pay their taxes, bring up children reasonably for the next generation, often perform community services such as school governors etc, and get slagged off by all because they are too busy doing those things to form pressure groups or whine to the media 😉 Rant over! I think we should have a “gold medal for the middle classes”, though! Anyway, whether or not I am middle class I don’t usually like books told from the POV of the criminal, or sympathetic to criminals, either.


    • Feel free to rant away on that subject or any other Maxine. I do feel so grumpy sometimes that our society seems to revere people who’ve done their years of drugs/violence/being a thieving little bastard and then found their way to a more civilised way of life but virtually ignores all the people who had just as rotten starts in life but chose to rise above it without becoming fodder for an Oprah episode. The character here though never asks you to feel sorry for him (and so, perversely, I did just a little bit).

      As for the book you may not like it (I know I shouldn’t have) but you won’t waste a lot of time reading it – not sure how many pages it would be but 4 hours makes it the shortest audio book I have listened to by a full 2 hours (I checked twice that it was the unabridged version)


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – First, it doesn’t at all make you a cow to dislike books that try to excuse career criminal behaviour. There are ways to make a criminal interesting but I’ve never been one either for books that try to make it all right for someone to make others’ lives miserable either by stealing from them or worse. Or maybe I’m a cow myself.
    “Slice of life” books can give a really interesting perspective, so I’m glad this one worked for you. Sometimes I’ve found they get a bit rambling but wow – the length of this one is appealing, too. I’ll have to see if it’s available here or will be soon.


  3. I don’t like books from the criminal’s POV, nor do I like slice of life books, too. But I’ve always enjoyed your recommendations. Since this is a little book, I’m very tempted to give it a try, now that I’ve read your review.


  4. I think I’d like The Thief. I like the type of book that “works” even though it shouldn’t. A book like that is like a gourmet dish consisting of ingredients that, separately, wouldn’t work at all but come together to make a delicious dish against all odds. I like surprises like that.


  5. Kathy D. says:

    Interesting review. Don’t know if I’ll read it as I don’t usually like books from the criminal’s p.o.v. I was trying to find your review of Villain and The Devotion of Suspect X, but I couldn’t I liked The Devotion of Suspect X, although I think I’m in the minority here.
    I find the detachment and alienation portrayed in Japan is different from that over here in the States I don’t know enough about the culture or society to really understand it, but social relations can be so awkward and difficult and there is so much alienation and disengagement.
    I think I’d be annoyed at the portrayal of women here, so I’ll think about it.


  6. Pingback: Books of the Month – April 2012 | Reactions to Reading

  7. Pingback: Best new-to-me authors Q2 2012 | Reactions to Reading

  8. Pingback: International Dagger 2013 – Reading Progress and Speculation – #1 | Reactions to Reading

  9. Pingback: Review: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura | The Game's Afoot

Comments are closed.