Book Review: Tokyo by Mo Hayder

I have always been fascinated by the East. I find both the history and cultural differences quite enchanting. So you can imagine my delight when I picked up a thriller by a British bestselling crime writer set in Japan.

The story is partly told through the eyes of the troubled Grey, whose obsession with the massacres of Nanking in 1937 brought her to Tokyo in search of a missing film depicting the atrocities committed by the Japanese during this time. In her quest she seeks out Shi Chongming, a visiting Chinese professor at the University and a survivor of the Nanking disaster. She believes the film to be in his possession.

Here Hayder weaves in the other point of view of the story, the professor’s, told with the aid of his diaries. The move back and forth between old events and new can sometimes be confusing in thrillers, however the author manages to achieve this seamlessly as we follow both stories. And the historical content is impressive, if a little shocking at times.

When Chongming initially refuses to help her, Grey finds herself in a strange city with no money and is forced to seek out lodgings and take a job in a high class hostess club, entertaining Japanese businessmen. But she refuses to give up on Chongming, who eventually strikes a deal with her: she has to supply something to him before he will share the footage with her.

This quest sets her on a ride that examines the underbelly of Japan’s capital and puts her own life at risk. Hayder hikes up the suspense and you are left turning the pages urgently to see what fate has decided for poor Grey. As the two stories become interwoven, the denouement of the novel takes you on an emotionally charged ride, leaving you totally wrung out to dry with the final revelation in the end. This is a hauntingly moving novel that stays with you long after you have finished.

It is obvious when you read the book that Hayder has spent a lot of time in Tokyo. Having only visited the city myself for a week, some years ago, I was able to directly recognise some of the landmarks she mentions. But you don’t need to have visited Tokyo to read this novel; the sense of place she creates is near to perfection. When she describes the hostess club you feel as though you are sitting at the table with Grey watching the enigmatic Mama Strawberry pound the floors with her stilettos.

I would definitely recommend this book if you are looking for a crime thriller with a difference set in a foreign land. It won’t fail to disappoint.


Author’s Note: Initially published as ‘Tokyo’ in 2004, be aware that this book was re-released in February 2010 under the title of The ‘Devil of Nanking’.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Tokyo by Mo Hayder

  1. Jane, great review.

    I read the book some years ago, and your review brought back memories. I agree with you – an interesting read and a fabulous setting in Tokyo. I particularly enjoyed it because I spent a year in Nanjing and knew that part of history well, although I’ve never been to Japan.

    I have read another of the author’s book which was set in Bristol afterwards.

    • Hi Junying. Glad it brought back memories. Must have been particularly poignant for you if you lived in that part of China. I’lI’m certainly going to try more of Mo’s work.

  2. Oh wow – I read this a few years ago too and it made a huge impact on me. Afterwards I read the Iris Chang book that inspired it, which is brutal but captivating. I visited Tokyo and made it my mission to find loads of Jizo statues (quite eerie, I have pics, if you’re interested), and then visited Nanjing and the memorial museum which is harrowing, to say the least. The fact that Iris Chang was persecuted for telling the story is also incredible. Her statue is at the Nanjing museum and the whole thing made me feel very, very sad. As for Mo Hayder – one of y favourite authors. The whole Jack Caffrey/Flea Marley series set in London/Bristol is fab, and there’s a new one out this year that I can’t wait for. Another standalone by the same author is Pig Island (which is set on a Scottish island and is very different too). Mo herself is quite an enigma. I saw her once and she looks quite fragile and ethereal, and yet she has lived in so many places and done so many things and writes this terrifying prose… (I’ll stop now… Thank you for sharing this review, Jane!)

    • Hi Susi! What a lovely long message. It’s wonderful that you’ve managed to visit both Tokyo and Nanjing. I bet it really made the book come alive. Thanks for the other recs. I’ll certainly put them on my TBR. Interesting comments about the author too. Lovely to hear from you, dear friend. Hope the novel is coming along 🙂

      • Apologies if I rambled – I was just very affected by that book – in fact, I may have to read it again soon! I’m making real progress this year (and it’s only the 17th of Jan!) – will update you about it soon 🙂

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