Nancy Oakes's Reviews > The Thief

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
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Mar 26, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: crime-fiction-japan, translated-crime-fiction, crime-fiction
Read in March, 2012

for a longer and much more in-depth review, redirect here.

The Thief is a very good read, intensely satisfying with a great deal of psychological depth to go along with the crime elements of the novel. The central character is a pickpocket named Nishimura (whose name is only stated once) who has sharpened his skills to an elite level over the years to the point where he can easily remove a wallet, sift through its contents and sometimes return it to its owner, all without the victim's knowledge. He takes money and leaves the rest of the contents, always clever enough to avoid holding onto anything that would attract police attention. He plies his trade in crowded places, subways, trains, etc., possessing an uncanny ability to blend in well no matter where he finds himself; conversely, he lives anonymously and has very few human ties. He had a girlfriend once, and he has a friend, Ishikawa, who was wanted in connection with fraud. Avoiding the warrant issued for his arrest, Ishikawa left for the Phillipines, Pakistan (where he officially "died") and Kenya before returning to Japan to assume the identity of a dead man. Complicating matters, our narrator becomes involved with a mother and son whom he first meets in a supermarket, where they make an inept attempt at stealing food. Even though he is a complete loner, he begins to feel a bond with the boy, whose path he crosses more than once since the boy is often sent out on shoplifting missions by his mother, a prostitute and drug addict.

With Ishikawa back in Tokyo, the narrator is drawn into the darkest circle of Tokyo's underworld scene, where he comes across a sociopathic crime boss for whom power seems to be the acme of earthly existence. He gets caught up in a home robbery which goes very badly, not solely for the owner of the item the narrator and his cohorts are recruited to steal, but also for some of the criminals involved. As a result of his participation, the narrator finds himself in an impossible situation with an untenable outcome: either he faces a nearly-impossible challenge of his criminal lifetime or he loses the one valuable thing he has.


The Thief is an intense read, although it may disappoint some readers because of its lack of clear-cut standard formulations to which people have become accustomed in their crime fiction. There is a wonderful "story-within-a-story" segment within the novel dealing with both power and fate, turning the reader's attention to issues beyond the crimes committed in this book. It does take some getting used to, but once you get into it, the author amps up the pace without using any gimmicky literary devices, letting the suspense build until you have to keep turning pages just to find out what's going to happen.

Kudos to Soho for bringing this book to the reading public.
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