Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven

A BarksBeachesBooks Review

What a wild ride we are given by Mr Van Laerhoven in a novel where Sin City meets Glass meets No Country for Old Men – a story of stories. In Return to Hiroshima we are drawn to the frontline of several lives being intricately woven together and then filleted right before our eyes. This is a dark, complicated and challenging read set during the 50th anniversary of Little Boy being dropped on Japan, the past and present evident in every decision made. 

We are thrown into the middle of a battle of completely differing morals. Mitsuko is fleeing her father, Rokurobei, the leader of an underground crime organization who she has witnessed murder several people. Including her own mother? On the other hand, Rokurobei is tracking Mitsuko down not because of her knowledge of his unsavory affairs, but due to her mental health and the problems it has caused. Including murdering her own mother? Upon meeting Yori and Reizo who offer her a place to stay, Mitsuko soon learns that she has more to fear than just the wrath of her father.

Yori and Reizo are part of the “Suicide Club”, a group of young squatters avoiding reality with jobs as pickpockets and street performers. Yori is drawn to the madness of the psychopaths around her, like that of none other than her boyfriend Reizo for whom she helps lure a foreigner to try and poison. The reason for this? A story to tell. And we will find that Yori is a sucker for a good story…

Of course, in any stories as dramatic as these the police are involved which is where inspector Takeda comes in. He is determined to solve several crimes that he has been told to leave alone by his superiors. He quickly gets a target on his back due to not following orders, putting those around him in danger as well. Are all these good intentions to help redeem himself for previous actions of his own? But of course. 

Rokurobei quickly traces Mitsuko to the Suicide Club where he encounters Reizo, who leaves him with a cryptic clue to the location of Mitsuko…and then Yori, who is as smitten by the madness of Rokurobei as she was Reizo…and then inspector Takeda and the police doctor’s investigations into crimes that should not concern them…and then, and then, and then. He is on a cover up spree, and it seems that no one will be spared.

It is soon revealed that Rokurobei also means Lord of Lies, and we quickly learn that it’s hard to tell who, if anyone, is telling the truth or just their truth. It seems, due to the differing sets of morals mentioned above (Rokurobei’s mirroring those of Anton from No Country for Old Men), that everyone completely believes their own versions while simultaneously being drawn to the voice and ideals of Rokurobei. We see this several times as people easily place their trust in a madman even as they become witness to the wake of his horrific acts.

Bob Van Laerhoven writes in quick, detail packed chapters in alternating points of view. There are several characters contributing the each other’s stories even though these are people that never should have met except for fate. Fate is a strong theme throughout the course of this book as everyone is back in Hiroshima to meet theirs. From Xavier Douterloigne, a diplomat’s son that grew up in Japan, to a German photographer on a mission to prove her talent, to police inspectors and commissioners, to underground crime organizations. It seems everyone is connected, even when they come from worlds apart.

The extreme dualities of the characters extends to the overall story itself as well. Bob somehow managed to seamlessly connect noir crime fiction with historical fiction. As soon as I type those words I realize that of course the two genres should go hand in hand, yet how often have I read a story like that? This is the first.

Author Bio

Bob Van Laerhoven is a 66-year-old Belgian/Flemish author who has published (traditionally) more than 45 books in Holland and Belgium. His cross-over oeuvre between literary and noir/suspense is published in French, English, German, Spanish, Swedish, Slovenian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Russian. A Chinese translation is currently in production.

In Belgium, Laerhoven was a four-time finalist of the ‘Hercule Poirot Prize for Best Mystery Novel of the Year’ with the novels ‘Djinn’, ‘The Finger of God’, ‘Return to Hiroshima’, and ‘The Firehand Files’. In 2007, he became the winner of the coveted Hercule Poirot Prize with ‘Baudelaire’s Revenge’, which, in English translation, also won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category ‘mystery/suspense’. His first collection of short stories ‘Dangerous Obsessions’, published in the USA in 2015, was chosen as the ‘best short story collection of 2015’ by the San Diego Book Review. The collection has been translated into Italian, (Brazilian) Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.  ‘Return to Hiroshima’, his second crime novel in English, was published in May 2018 by Crime Wave Press(Hong Kong).  The British quality review blog Murder, Mayhem & More has chosen ‘Return to Hiroshima’ as one of the ten best international crime novels of 2018. MMM reviews around 200 novels annually by international authors. Also in 2018, the Anaphora Literary Press published ‘Heart Fever’, his second collection of short stories. ‘Heart Fever’ was one of the five finalists of the American Silver Falchion Award. Laerhoven was the only non-American finalist. The collection has been translated into Italian and Spanish. A German translation is currently in production.

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