Nicolás Obregón
Minotaur Books

The best thing about Twitter is coming across new novels all the time. Nicolás Obregón’s BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA popped up a few times in my timeline, always with praise attached to it, and I decided to get my hands on a copy. Ten pages into it, I was glad I had done so. A brooding, bloody, unexpectedly emotional narrative set against the chaotic backdrop of Tokyo, this novel brings together a series of disparate elements an a likeable, flawed main character and makes them dance with a few revamped clichés to an entirely fresh rhythm.

Inspector Iwata has been recently reinstated to the Homicide Division and transferred to a precinct in Tokyo after a personal tragedy. Getting used to the job in a new place is always hard, and his process is made even harder by superiors who dislike him and fellow law enforcement officers who seem to belong to the opposite side of the law. To boot, Iwata is assigned a new partner, Noriko Sakai, a young, talented agent who would prefer to be working alone or with anyone but Iwata. The duo are assigned a case whose previous detective committed suicide: the slaughter of an entire family in their home. There is no clear motive and the available evidence is confusing and bizarre. Also, the murders have a ritualistic angle and there is a Black Sun painted at the crime scene as well as a strange incense smell and proof that the killer hung around for hours after the killing was over. As Iwata investigates the case and tries to learn as much as possible about the killer, which comes to be known as the Black Sun Killer, information about possible ties to a nationalist group/cult emerge and links to other murders start to manifest. What follows is a fast-paced narrative about obsession, hidden agendas, murky pasts, vengeance, growing up, dealing with loss, violence, and corruption that delivers a cinematic, satisfying ending.

This is one of those novels that constantly moves forward, even when dealing with the past. It also does so at a very nice pace. Obregón is a talented writer with a knack for descriptions and dialogue, and both of those make this a superb, tense, strangely beautiful read. On one hand, there is the desperation of the murders and the authorities’ inability to stop them (not to mention their involvement in them). On the other hand, there is an emotional depth to the narrative that makes it inhabit the interstitial space between a classic thriller with a noir soul and a twisted, emotionally raw literary novel. As if that wasn’t enough, there is also the violence, an element that nestles everything else it its tight, bloody grip:

“Standing in the doorway, Iwata saw the whole scene. The woman was spread-eagled in the middle of the floor, the sheets and blankets beneath her showing she had been dragged. Her eyes fixed on the sea, two old marbles. She had the same gaping tunnel to her heart. The same black staining on the fingers of her left hand. On the wall behind her was another black sun symbol, as tall as Iwata.”
Although comparisons can be dangerous, they are also sometimes the best way to convey what an author has accomplished. In the case of this novel, Obregón has done for Tokyo what James Ellroy has done for Los Angeles and Lawrence Block has done for New York. Namely, he made the city a breathing, moving, overpopulated creature with too much neon, too many dark alleys, and dirty secrets and painful pasts running through its veins. The descriptions are rich and manage to place the reader in the city, but they go deeper than that and eventually become, along with the song that gives the novel its title, a kind of connective tissue that helps the story stick together. Furthermore, the passages dealing with the city are a pleasure to read because the author understands the importance of poetry and how it works best in crime fiction when it cares about economy of language:

“Iwata headed west and skyscrapers shot upward, tapering monuments to order and profit. Logos took on strange significance—two cats representing a courier company, an eagle advertising car tires, a red flower selling probiotic yogurt. Outside a luxury hotel, a row of beige and yellow taxis contained sleeping drivers, hoping to be woken by guests hungry for Tokyo’s flesh. Iwata walked south beneath the large ventricle of Metropolitan Expressway No. 4, traffic intermittently shushing over him. Looking up, he tried to see stars but there were only skyscrapers and gray murk.”

After the last page, BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA sticks with you because the trauma suffered by almost every single important character is too much to immediately forget. Also, the promise of more Iwata books to come is a welcome one, which is always something to celebrate in a genre flooded with bland, formulaic series. Lastly, although Obregón is a seasoned writer, this is a debut novel, and it is so good it earns its author an immediate spot on the list of authors whose next book I will eagerly await.

~ Gabino Iglesias