PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS: The True Story ofa Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo -- and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up, by Richard Lloyd Parry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 452 pp., $16 paper.

 

Americans have an advantage in reading "People Who Eat Darkness" -- we are less likely to know about Lucie Blackman. The blond Brit was 21 when she disappeared in Japan in 2000; the months-long search for her made headlines in both Japan and England.

Unlike readers there, we don't know what happened to Lucie -- although we will by the middle of Robert Lloyd Parry's masterful literary true crime story, which earns its comparisons to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song."

Lucie Blackman was a middle-class English girl who was dissatisfied with her flight attendant job for British Airways. She moved with her best friend, Louise Phillips, to Japan, where they hoped to make a better living.

Lucie and Louise took jobs as hostesses at a bar in Tokyo's nightclub-filled Roppongi district, catering to Japanese businessmen who wanted to mix with English-speaking Caucasian women. Lucie's job was to drink, flatter and make conversation with the guests. She was given bonuses for extra bottles of liquor they bought and for the off-site dinners they treated her to. The services ended there.

On a Saturday, Lucie left to have lunch with a client of the club and never returned. The police brushed off Louise's concerns, all but saying that Lucie was on a tryst. First, Lucie's sister Sophie, then her father, Tim, flew to Japan and launched a missing-persons campaign. They set up a phone line for tips about Lucie's whereabouts and held regular news conferences. Posters went up around the city. Media flocked from England.

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Tim's resolve to find his daughter manifested in atypical ways -- he drank with reporters in the bar of the hotel they shared, and his demeanor was more determined than despairing. Meanwhile, Lucie's mother, Jane -- estranged from Tim since their divorce -- made her own trips to Japan. It is to Parry's credit that he earned the trust of both parents, whose split was so acrimonious that Jane has sued Tim over the trust established in Lucie's name.

Parry, a longtime British journalist based in Japan, describes the slow-to-start and painstaking process the police used to track down the man who picked up Lucie. One of the most tragic aspects of the story is not that they couldn't find him -- they did -- but that they'd spoken to him in the doorway of his apartment the day after Lucie's disappearance, after a complaint about a disturbance. And a few brave hostesses had previously come forward to say they had been drugged and raped by him. The police had never followed up.

When they arrested Joji Obara, the evidence was in front of them: He drugged women and then videotaped himself raping them while they were unconscious. He kept a log over decades listing his activities, including which drugs he used to what effect; in court, he maintained that the log was fiction.

Despite Parry's evident reporting skills, Obara remains an enigma. An ethnic Korean born in Japan, he inherited his wealth from his father and invested in real estate. He drove expensive cars, even when his businesses were in trouble.

The police had evidence that Obara had met Lucie and even sent them letters after she'd gone missing that included her forged signature saying she was alive and well. She had been dead all along -- but it took the police seven months to find her remains. She was buried near Obara's apartment -- where a witness had seen him that night with a shovel -- her body dismembered, her head encased in concrete. "Either the police had conspired in a misguided cover-up that had resulted in the decay of precious forensic evidence," Parry writes, "or they had achieved the same result through scarcely credible oversight and incompetence."

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Obara went to prison for a handful of provable cases of drugging and rape, and for a killing -- not of Lucie Blackman but of Carita Ridgeway, an Australian model whose cause of death came to light only after Obara's arrest. She had suffered liver failure at the age of 22, and Obara, using a false name, had dropped her at the hospital. That was 1992, eight years and dozens of druggings and rapes before Lucie's death.

Like the case of Etan Patz, the Lucie Blackman disappearance captured the public imagination. By writing about it in such culturally informed detail, Parry subtly encourages an understanding that goes past the headlines. It is a dark, unforgettable ride.