This is not what I expected.
I had heard about ‘The Thief’ (Japanese title: “Pick-pocket”) being a great mystery and crime novel, and that the book’s young author, Fuminori Nakamura, had won the 2009 Oe Prize (Japan’s largest literary prize), and I was thus interested in reading this book. The only other similar type of book which I had read was “The Devotion of Suspect X” by Keigo Higashino, and I was expecting a similar type of traditional crime novel with perhaps a twist near the end.
But, while The Thief is on one level this type of book, it is also very different from traditional books in this category. There is a strong philosophical aspect to Nakamura’s story, which is woven well into the main plot.
The story centers around a professional pickpocket (for whom the name which he uses daily is not shared in the book) who, along with two others, is hired by a mysterious man for a special theft assignment. They complete the assignment and he is paid a lot, but the next day it is in the news that their target was murdered. The main character all of a sudden finds himself involved in a complex and dangerous situation, where it is not clear if he will manage to find his way out.
There are subplots including one related to his old partner in crime who he meets after a long time, and another about a young boy who steals to survive, and who the Thief becomes friends with. This relationship with the boy is the only real solid relationship shared in the book in the present time period. There is also regular mention of a ‘tower’ which the Thief used to see as a child, although it is not so clear how this is related to the plot. Nakamura in addition spends time describing details about pickpockets – not only their methods, but also some justifications which they use for their crimes.
The book is relatively short, and Nakamura writes concisely and efficiently. Dialogues are brief, and the book moves along at a quick pace. Characters development is mixed; understood that there will not be in depth character development in a book of this length, but on the other hand some of the characters are not described in enough detail to really understand who they are and what their motivations are.
The pace picks up quite a bit near the end at is hard to put the book down. One is hooked through the last page, last paragraph, and last sentence. However, when I finished this book, my initial thought was that the book was good, but the overall storyline was not that different from other novels of this type, and I was tempted to give this book three out of five stars based upon the main plot only.
However, after thinking about this further, the book grew on me, and there were two areas in particular which I really liked: (1) the ending (which not all will like) (2) the philosophical theme throughout the book. With regards to the philosophy shared, it is more of an existentialist or absurdist type of philosophy, and there are shades of Camus in Nakamura’s work. But what prevents me from giving five stars is that, unlike the case of Camus where in works like The Stranger (also known as The Outsider) the book is both solid and complete, in The Thief there are still parts which are left too vague and ambiguous. Either the reader has not fully understood these unclear areas, or these are gaps in Nakamura’s work, but in either case this takes away from being able to give this book five stars.
In short, if you are looking for a more traditional mystery and crime novel, then this book is not for you, and I’d actually then suggest reading The Devotion of Suspect X. However, if you are interested in taking a risk with something both different and unique, which you may or may not end up liking, then this is definitely worth reading.
Rating: **** (four out of five stars)