The protagonist is Grey, an unconventional English tourist, who has flown to Tokyo in search of a missing film about the Nanking Massacre of 1930. Her one lead is the mysterious Professor Shi Congming, one of the massacre's survivors. The book is largely told from Grey's prespective in the 'present' of the 1980's, with occasional glimpses of the past, as recalled by Professor Shi.
Hayder does a very good job of maintaining the delicate balance between the past and present. This is not an airport thriller, in which two intrepid (but robust) academics find the Lost Secret of the Inca-Bible-Judas-Machine and put an end to a Global Conspiracy. Instead, everyone in Tokyo is motivated by small, human (or horribly inhuman) and, critically, personal reasons. Finding the lost video won't save the world, but, as the reader learns from the outset, it would mean a lot to Grey.
Although Grey encounters Professor Shi immediately upon arriving in the city, he's not obliging of her demands to start sifting through the horrors in his past. While he deliberates (often in the form of flashbacks), Grey is forced to wait. Left to her own devices, the lost Grey immediately sinks into the level of the Tokyo underworld. She moves to a strange, abandoned house, filled with other lost souls, and gets a job as a hostess in a Yakuza-populated nightclub. In both places, she encounters many of the denizens of the author's fruitful and disturbing imagination - a Japanese madam who pretends to be Marilyn Monroe, a truly horrific serial killer known as 'The Nurse', a crippled Yakuza lord and a foxy American waiter with a penchant for the bizarre.
As fascinatingly random this collection of oddities is, the great mystery, however, is Grey. Despite the first-person prespective, the reader knows very about the book's protagonist. In fact, for the first half of the book, the reader is only presented with more and more mysteries and allusions. However, as Tokyo rolls towards conclusion, more and more of Grey's past is unveiled - why she's in Tokyo, what happened to her, and, most critically of all, why that film is so very important.
Hayder's progressive reveal of Grey's past is delicately done, and is easily the most impressively crafted part of the book. Grey is a strange bird (no pun intended) and initially quite difficult to understand - by keeping Grey as mysterious as possible, Hayder teases the reader into following along. By the climax, Grey is officially an empathetic character, allowing Hayder to briefly take the spotlight off of her, and throw in a bit of much-needed action to break up the book's tension.
1980's Tokyo and 1930's Nanking never come to life as environments. Grey (in Tokyo) and Professor Shi (in Nanking) are so wrapped up in their own actions that the rest of the setting never comes to the fore-front. With Professor Shi, this is neatly done. The horrors of the Massacre are oft-alluded to and rarely seen - a nicely written bit of terror writing that keeps things interesting. With Grey, it is more of a disappointment. Her immediate surroundings (the house, the club) become Grey's entire world - she's so alienated from the rest of Tokyo that the bulk of her story could be staged anywhere in the world.
Tokyo is a disturbing thriller with a finely-crafted and extremely tense plot. Whereas threatening to destroy the world is easy and commonplace in horror fiction, it is much more impressive to write a novel detailings the terror suffered by a single person. In Tokyo, Mo Hayder succeeds.
Tube journeys: 1 long flight