When did you last look at a complete stranger in the street and wonder about them? Where they’re going? What they’re thinking? For me, it’s usually the same person, the man who talks to the sky.
I’m writing this at my kitchen table, which looks on to a typical Los Angeles working-class street. There’s a crack den at one end. At the other, an old church that resembles a timber wedding cake. The street is lined with that most ubiquitous of immigrant Angelenos — palm trees. If there’s a breeze and you close your eyes, their fronds sound like burning paper. Every morning, a man pauses directly outside my house and looks up at the sky. For a long time I ignored him, assuming he was just admiring the palm trees. Then one day, I noticed he was muttering to himself. Sometimes just a few words. Sometimes whole conversations. Occasionally, he seems to receive answers. But usually he leaves frustrated. Why?
A mile away, some seventy years ago, the bisected remains of the Black Dahlia – Elizabeth Short – were found on an empty lot. Today a ‘No Parking’ sign marks the spot, an underwhelming monument to the city’s most infamous unsolved homicide. Black Dahlia theories abound, but one question has never been answered. Who?
I was born five-and-a-half-thousand miles to the east, in London. I’ll wager that you, dear reader, also grew up with a local urban legend. Growing up on a Camden council estate, the story I always heard was about John, the resident alcoholic that had supposedly murdered the post woman and fed her to his dog. People spoke about it as though it were fact. But nobody could ever tell me why he’d done it.
The world is full of these puzzles – oceans of the unknown, infinite why, infinite who. Three such mysteries became an obsession for me. An entire Japanese family murdered in their suburban home. The unidentified remains of a migrant found near the US border with a dead hummingbird in his pocket. A young English woman vanished while hostessing in Tokyo’s neon-drenched entertainment district. These are the cases that inspired my Inspector Kosuke Iwata trilogy.
Who murdered the Miyazawa Family? Why did the man in the desert carry a hummingbird in his pocket? And while we know who murdered Lucie Blackman, Joji Obara never admitted his guilt, let alone offer any kind of explanation. Inspector Iwata investigates fictionalized versions of these cases (though he has always been an enigma to me, a tangle of secrets). We first meet him in Blue Light Yokohama, newly transferred to the Shibuya Homicide Department and on the case of a slaughtered Korean family. Five years later, Sins As Scarlet finds Iwata in Los Angeles, where he has partly grown up, hunting a man murdering transgender women in the city’s underbelly.
In my latest book, Unknown Male, Iwata has come full circle. Returning to Tokyo just before the 2020 Olympic Games, his old boss at Shibuya Homicide has asked him to do one last case. Local sex workers have been quietly vanishing, and now Skye Mackintosh, a young English exchange student, has been found murdered in a love hotel. The world’s media is converging and an unknown male is out there, prowling for his next victim, hidden in an ocean of 40 million Tokyoites. Iwata had sworn he would never return to this city, a maze of ghosts and bitter memories. But returning to Tokyo also means a chance at finally settling an old score; a chance at finally confronting the secrets that have tormented him his entire life. Iwata solves mysteries in the world around him. But deep down he has always been seeking to solve the mystery within.
I wonder if that’s why, like Iwata, we’re so drawn to the unknown. By solving the mysteries around us, it provides answers within ourselves. Why many of us search for truths we’re unlikely to ever find. Who murdered Elizabeth Short? What answers does my strange neighbour find in the sky? In an uncertain universe, perhaps the unexplained is a safer harbour than the brutal realities of the cosmic chaos we inhabit. Sometimes the unknown can create deep wounds in us that will never heal. But mysteries, and the fictions we can extract from them, can also grant a catharsis that the real world so often denies us.
Five years ago, I scribbled down my first idea for a character called Iwata. Three books later, who he is remains an enigma to me. But I do know what he is to me. A little paper boat, in search of answers, floating precariously on an ocean of the unknown.