THERE’S no shortage, if you’re truly desperate, of TV shows to instruct you on how to tidy up your home. Making Space, The Life Laundry, The Big Spring Clean, Hoarders, Get Your House in Order: each has its own "de-clutter expert", which is usually just another way of saying a person with enough common sense to realise that it’s about time to throw out those 40 tins of violet paint bought 20 years ago because they were in a sale, those gorilla fancy dress costumes that no longer fit their pensioner owners and those thigh-high leather boots that seemed a good idea at the time.
The world of publishing has its equivalent, although nowhere near enough of them. They’re called editors. When he or she comes across someone’s eyes being described as “deep-rooted blue [that] flickered and changed hue like the water of the sea in mutating light”, an editor dons a pair of metaphorical rubber gloves and sticks the offending phrase in the metaphorical skip. Same with “the starry sky throbbed with lights from a distance that he would never travel to”: into the skip with it too. “The plangent waters resounded as if angry”? That’s in there already, with a despairing editor’s three-word note (“Plangent? Resounded? Angry?”) attached.
All these examples come from a book whose own story is far more poignant than anything else within it. Tokyo Nights is a thriller written by two friends who met while working in Japan – Douglas Forrester, from Bearsden, and Dublin-born Jim Hickey. It was published at the tail-end of last year by Edinburgh-based Fledgling Press. Sadly, this was too late for Forrester, who died of a brain tumour in September. He was just 43.
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As well as tidying up Tokyo Nights’s unnecessarily hoarded words, a better editor could have given it a tighter focus. What kind of character is the novel’s central protagonist? The back cover tries to explain: “Charlie Davis, a modern-day heretic ... rushes into a picaresque journey through the glistening nights of Tokyo.” Modern-day heretic, you may be wondering. What’s that? Hands up those for whom it means Manchester drug dealer turned TEFL teacher in Japan. Anyone?
Davis is, we are continually told, charismatic, “like a riddler with answers but no questions, a Satanic Pied Piper leading lemmings to cliffs.” At least, that’s how he looked to Colin McCann, a private eye who follows Davis to Japan to try to find out more about his involvement in the drug-related death of an Altrincham businessman’s daughter. Amazingly, McCann gets a job in the same language school as Davis, although when drunk he spoils it all by admitting the Altrincham connection. This completely ruins one plot even if it half-starts another in which the two are chased across the wilds of Hokkaido by an ultra-polite gangster. It’s autumn at the time. We are reminded of this by a mysterious Japanese woman to whom both the Brits are attracted. “Soon this land will be covered in snow,” she warns McCann, “like a bride of death.” McCann falls for her, as he does for all Japanese woman. Whether it’s four fortysomethings on the plane to Tokyo (“they reminded him of puffins, with their large pale heads, strikingly outlined eyes and trim, neat little bodies” – yup, that’s right, into the skip with it) or a random Tokyo waitress who made him feel “as if he had been asked to dance by the hottest girl in the year” when all he’d done was order a teriyaki chicken burger, he can’t get enough of them. Given a thorough editing, whole unnecessary scenes would have disappeared from this book as well as all of its unfathomable phrases (“he was cast naked into the blinding lights of the unknown” etc). The key question is: what kind of book would have been left?
Underneath everything, there’s a half-decent mass-market thriller here. It needs much tougher editing, but it enjoyably fleshes out all the many paradoxes – to Western eyes – of Japan: the way, for example, that old rituals of attentiveness co-exist with celebrity-obsessed debauchery; and how the drunken hedonists in Tokyo’s neon maze might, the very next day, gather for communal gardening or to tidy up their local streets. It’s a book, too, based on friendship, written by two men who first met at a language school – and even if that wasn’t quite like the Hunky Dory English Club in the novel, I hope at least that they had fun writing about it.
Tokyo Nights by Jim Douglas is published by Fledgling Press, priced £9.99