The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura is a crime thriller set in modern-day Japan about an experienced pickpocket named Nishimura as he prowls the crowded streets of Tokyo, looking for his next mark. He floats through the metropolis, taking what he wants, as if in an ethereal, dreamlike state, unable to wake up.
He has no family, friends, and very few relationships, and barely even a name since it’s rarely mentioned. But he does have some contacts, which come in the form of an old partner named Ishikawa who shows up offering a job. Nishimura is good at what he does, which is nonviolent pickpocketing and thievery. There are actually many detailed tips on how he sizes people up, the proper way to bump into them, dip their pockets, and escape without the mark even realizing they’ve been had.
But the job Ishikawa is offering is different. It’s working for a crime boss named Kizaki, who wants Nishimura, along with Ishikawa and some other thugs, to break into an old man’s to steal the contents of a safe there. To do this, they’ll have to intimidate him, threatening him with death, but Nishimura is assured that nobody has to die for this job. One detail though, they’ll need to speak with Chinese accents, to throw off any suspicion that native Japanese criminals were responsible.
Of course, since this is a crime novel, things go awry. Upon entering the old man’s house, they find his mistress, tie her up and gag her, and intimidate the man, and make off with the contents of the safe. Nishimura returns to his normal routine, which includes pickpocketing, but also something akin to a relationship with a prostitute and her young son. He is the closest thing to a father/mentor figure the boy has, which isn’t much, but Nishimura tries his hardest to save him from the empty fate that has consumed him.
He’s also haunted by memories of Saeko, a married woman who he had a love affair with and lost so many years ago, the closest he was to ever having a happy life. But if Nishimura’s current existence is hollow, it soon becomes nightmarish. After the robbery, it is revealed that the old man was brutally murdered in his home. Not only that, but he was also a prominent politician, who Kizaki wanted dead as a warning to others.
Others turn up dead, namely Ishikawa, and Nishimura is next unless he completes a series of three simple, yet very difficult tasks. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s Tokyo’s best pickpocket.
The Thief is a somewhat “literary” novel, but it never veers too far into pretentious, plodding navel-gazing that exemplifies literary fiction. Fuminori Nakamura has written many other crime novels, with similar themes. The character Kizaki especially muses about philosophy, such as, was it Nishimura’s fate to be manipulated by him, or was being manipulated by Kizaki simply Nishimura’s fate?
There is a gritty, bleak atmosphere to the entire book, which makes it a perfect example of modern Japanese noir in my opinion. It reminded me a lot of the 2011 movie Drive starring Ryan Gosling – both about men with a thin identity, drifting through an ethereal life, toward a violent conclusion.