Over the last decade, American bookshelves have become open to more work in translation, creating an influx of award-winning and spotlight-stealing writers from Roberto Bolaño to Per Petterson to Muriel Barbery. A strange but predictable side effect of more overseas work is that authors are often labeled as the “next” version of the most prominent author from their homeland. Latin-American authors have had to deal with this for years, and now Scandinavian authors have assumed the yoke of Stieg Larsson.
So it’s a credit to the originality of Nakamura that his novel comes unadorned with any mantles to assume. The Thief is billed as a Japanese crime novel, but it reads more like a Japanese literary novel, in that it focuses primarily on the self-alienation of the protagonist Nishimura, a man who would be a hikikomori (recluse) were it not for his profession: pickpocket. Skilled at his craft to the point of being nearly invisible, he seems to materialize when he witnesses a boy and his addict mother fumbling through a theft in a grocery store. He does his best to steer the kid out of a life of crime, running into him often as he’s sent out by his mom on errands.
Nakamura trades in the compression of the standard noir story for an airier atmosphere, one in which danger isn’t so much lurking around every corner but out in the ether. When an old friend runs a complicated scheme and ends up in a much dicier criminal underworld, he brings Nishimura along with him. The book is more Conrad than Connelly, which may be disappointing for traditional mystery fans, but a breath of fresh air for readers looking for something beyond the procedural.