Friday, May 07, 2004

The hostess with the mostest 

Normally I don't link to pieces at The Times, because it's behind a subscriber-only registration firewall. But Ali Karim passed on this story of Mo Hayder, whose new novel TOKYO was based on her former life as a hostess in a Japanese club, as well as a recent return to the country upon the murder of Lucie Blackman, a young hostess who bore a striking resemblance to Hayder:

Her return to Japan took Hayder to the club where Lucie met Joji Obara, the Armani-wearing millionaire who is currently on trial for her murder. And it inspired her latest novel, Tokyo, a thriller which draws together hostess bar culture, the yakuza mafia and the 1937 massacre of 300,000 Chinese when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanking. It will also make you think hard before taking Chinese medicine.

There's a good reason why Hayder's novel, as well as her previous books (BIRDMAN and THE TREATMENT) are written in graphically violent detail:

Hayder finds the "cosy crime" of Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie dishonest: "The whole engine in a crime book is the violent act, yet you never see the violence. That is where I came up with my manifesto, that I was going to describe everything in detail."

As Hayder ventured back into her past, she found that things had changed considerably since 1989, when she felt she was in "the safest place on earth":

Hayder found the club where Lucie Blackman had worked - no easy task when one skyscraper contains 100 bars and the Casablanca, shamed by the publicity, had changed its name to the Green Grass. At 41, Hayder had not expected to be offered a job among the gap-year girls ? but she was, provided she obeyed a list of new rules.

"Trousers were banned--which surprised me since at the El Manon you could wear jeans--and you had to wear high heels," says Hayder.

But the most significant change was how much kyaku-hiki (customer-pulling) the girls were expected to perform. Hostesses were sent to the base of the tower blocks to drum up trade, making them look like streetwalkers. Girls would scrabble for customers' business cards, then, on quiet nights, phone or even write to former clients, saying how much they missed them.

But the principal rule was that every week a girl must do a set number of dohans, ie, go to dinner with a customer and then bring him into the club. Any hostess not making her quota would suffer a large drop in salary. These dohans made girls more likely to compromise their safety.

Chilling stuff, and no doubt good fodder for TOKYO, which has already received some glowing reviews in the UK press. For whatever reason, I've held off on trying Hayder's work--perhaps it's too gory even for the likes of me--but this book I want to read.

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