Douglas Forrester and Jim Hickey are two “gaijin” (as Hickey puts it) from the old school. They didn’t come to Japan for the anime, AKB48 or cosplay shops in Akihabara. They didn’t come because they had heard that teaching English (which they turned into their day jobs) was easy and lucrative. Cool Japan wasn’t yet a thing (this was 15 years ago). They came — Forrester from Scotland, Hickey from Australia en route from England — because they were both smitten by a certain facet of Japanese culture and wanted to see what it was all about.
Somehow, in spite of the frustration and irritation that inevitably accompanies living and working as English teachers in Japan, they stayed. Forrester took up Japanese calligraphy, learned to speak the language and married a local woman. Hickey nurtured a love for the haiku of Taneda Santoka and pored over translated classics by Osamu Dazai, Kafu Nagai and Yasunari Kawabata while traveling around the country with a Japanese girlfriend. The Japan that Hickey read about in those pages was radically different from the one he experienced daily, but often the two worlds would collide. In those moments of synchronicity, he longed to turn it into a book that would explain what he felt was an amazing experience.
The book, Hickey decided, had to be a thriller, but something closer to Raymond Chandler than Barry Eisler (the American author famed for his John Rain series, some of which were set in Tokyo).
“I saw Barry Eisler on YouTube, giving instructions on how to be a crime writer,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I could do that!’ “
Hickey, however, did not want to “do that” on his own. He took the idea to Forrester and suggested working on the book together. Hickey recalled the moment during an interview with The Japan Times.
“Doug was disciplined. And was also my best friend. I thought I could write and thought Doug might be able to do too. I wrote an opening chapter and said, ‘Ya fancy writing a book?’ He looked at me the way one looks at a mad man and smirked. I said, ‘We are going to write a thriller, not some art thing.’ “
This scene unfolded in Grazie Gardens (“S—- place, s—- food!”). Forrester read the opening, and Hickey could see him gradually nodding more and more to himself. “Finishing, he looked at me in the eye, nodded and said, ‘OK!’ “
That was more than four years ago. After that exchange in Grazie Gardens, Hickey and Forrester got down to write, pouring all their energy and time into what would become a 342-page noir called “Tokyo Nights.” It traces the escapades of two Englishmen — private investigator Colin McCann and fast-talking expat Charlie Davis — in a cat-and-mouse chase across Tokyo and northern Hokkaido.
It’s certainly not “some art thing,” but as Hickey laughingly says, it’s “better than your average airport fiction.” McCann is a bit stodgier and cautious than the detective heroes we’re used to, but then he did just get off a plane at Narita having booked a hotel in Shinjuku, of all places. He’s disoriented and queasy before he can regain the confidence necessary to get on with his job: investigating the death of a wealthy businessman’s daughter back in Manchester.
This businessman is certain that Davis — who had left the U.K. to immerse himself in Japan — had a hand in his daughter’s demise. It’s up to McCann to uncover what happened, but Tokyo and the whole other-worldly strangeness of Japan get in his way. He needs Davis to show him the ropes but McCann is miles away from trusting him.
“Tokyo Nights” was accepted by Edinburgh-based Fledgling Press in early 2016. Hickey and Forrester were offered a two-book deal, which meant they had to get started on the sequel right away.
Within weeks of the joyous news, Forrester was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He returned to Glasgow in September to be with his family but died shortly after, at 43 years old. After his death, Hickey was the one to inform Forrester’s parents that their son was about to have his first book published, because “Doug hadn’t let them know about it.”
“Doug hated Facebook, he hated self-advertising and all forms of bulls—-,” says Hickey. “He wanted to write the book and have it come out, and then tell everyone about it. He was the loveliest person I have ever met — devoid of spite, intelligent, poetic, direct, sharp and loving without sentiment.”
The two met when Hickey first came to Japan and a got a teaching job at Nova.
“Doug was my boss. We became fast friends and wound up sharing an apartment together. Now he’s gone, something is absent — namely his focus on detail — but absence creates further creativity and industry.” Hickey adds that he’s written 14 chapters of the sequel and he has learned from Forrester the importance of being attendant to the smallest parts of each paragraph.
“We had two very different writing styles. He liked to sit in front of his computer and really concentrate and get down the words like a craftsman. I liked to write on my phone while riding the train. It was the best way to forget the awful commute to work every morning.”
The awful commute is woven into the fabric of Tokyo living, and apart from the privileged few, it affects just about everyone — Japanese and foreign — earning their living in Japan’s capital city. Hickey and Forrester both took trains to their day jobs (Hickey teaching English to salarymen at Hitachi and Forrester as a teacher at Showa University), and in their respective ways they found methods of dealing with the grind.
“First I read all the time,” said Hickey. “Doug did too, but then he took to studying Japanese. And then we started work on the book and I started spending all that time writing on my phone.”
Hickey lives in Fujisawa, a little over an hour south from central Tokyo. He tried living in Shinjuku last year for a bit, an area that’s depicted in “Tokyo Nights” in graphic detail, but he “absolutely hated it.” Like many Japanese, he prefers to work in the city and go home to a quiet apartment well outside the metropolis when the day is done — just far away enough to make the distance seem like a comfort.
After 15 years here, Japan has retained its strangeness for Hickey, who says that the sense of not really belonging has never been a problem.
He used to have such conversations with Forrester, “about being here, what it means, what it takes to keep being here.” A good chunk of their ruminations have gone into “Tokyo Nights.”
In the book, Davis asks McCann: “What’s your take on Japan? Quite a head-f—-, ain’t it?” And McCann replies: “Yeah, it’s a culture shock all right. Pretty schizophrenic. Extremes all over the place.”
Hickey says he has no intention of trying to make sense of things by learning the language like Forrester. “I remain a happy pariah,” he says, who revels in the fact that Japan allows him to be an outsider.
“There’s no pressure to be an insider, no pressure to conform. I wouldn’t get that in Ireland, where my family lives now, or in Australia where I used to live. When you’re in your own culture, there is tremendous pressure to conform. You know, having to go to barbecues and attend church and that kind of thing. But here, I’m left alone, free to delight in the strangeness of it all.”
“Tokyo Nights” is available from Amazon.jp on Kindle (bit.ly/tokyo-nights) and in paperback from Amazon.uk (bit.ly/tokyonightsuk) Facebook: www.facebook.com/jimdouglastokyo. Mark Schreiber will review the book in the next Japan Times on Sunday. Launch parties will be held at Free Culture (www.freeculture.in), Fujisawa, Kanagawa Pref., on April 2 and Good Heavens, Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, on April 9. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.