The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Weaving in and out of Tokyo crowds, he has no family, no friends, no connections.... But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when he's asked to tie up an old rich man and steal the contents of his safe. The day after the job, he learns that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.
We get all the way to page 53 of Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura's chilling existential thriller The Thief before we learn the name of its protagonist-narrator, a Tokyo pickpocket whose sense of purpose and pleasure in life comes mostly from the careful practice of his illicit craft. By then a reader may feel no special need to know what this nervy fellow is called, so well has Mr. Nakamura caused us to view the world through the thief's hyper-sensitive mind ... The Thief concludes with an either-or ending that robs readers of a clear-cut resolution—without making them feel in any way cheated.
Both a crime thriller and character study, it is a unique and engrossing read, keeping a distant yet thoughtful eye on the people it follows ... Nakamura’s use of detail in his protagonist’s world is a fascinating and integral part of of the novel. Its look at Tokyo’s criminal class makes it at times read like a Japanese The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Watching The Thief hone in on a mark and apply his trade really pulls you into the story. Something that’s unique from many western crime novels is that because of the country’s strict gun control laws, the outlaws use knives and short swords. If you think this would make the book less violent, think again ... He may be looking at his story with a cold eye, but the warmth he sees is real and all the more poignant because of its faintness. It’s a haunting undercurrent, making The Thief a book that’s hard to shake once you’ve read it.
Though elegant, The Thief is less a crime novel than a meditation on crime. Plot, that guiltiest of literary pleasures, is in short supply here. Instead, there’s a lot of reflection on the meta-meaning of theft and of a shadow life lived outside convention ... I hankered for the meat-and-potatoes home cookin’ of Mickey Spillane, even as Nakamura was furiously serving up his own fusion of Kafka and Dostoevsky ... Throughout The Thief, Nakamura conjures up a bleak universe where everything looks and feels seedy. Even the most incidental scenes contain a dash of repulsion ... Give me a good bang-bang, shoot-shoot car chase any day.