Out by Natsuo Kirino
First published in Japanese in 1997; English translation 2004 (Vintage Books, UK).
'Kenji made choking sounds, trying to look around at her, but Yayoi pulled up and back, tightening the belt in one motion... She planted her left foot on the floor, and with the right one she pushed against his back. A sound like a frog's croak escaped from somewhere in his throat. It feels so good, she told herself. Strange that she'd never known she had such cruelty inside.'
Out is the story of four women - Masako, Yayoi, Yoshie and Kuniko - who all work the nightshift at a local boxed-lunch factory. When Yayoi, the youngest of the group, strangles her abusive, cheating husband, she turns to Masako for help. Masako enlists the assistance of Yoshie and Kuniko, and the body is dismembered and scattered throughout the city in plastic bags.
The tension picks up as soon as some of the body parts - sloppily disposed of by Kuniko in a local park - are discovered and the police launch their investigation. Masako is the strong, intelligent one who does her best to stay one step ahead. But she soon has more than the police to deal with: first a loan shark who bribes the self-centred Kuniko to spill the beans, and then the terrifying Satake, a nightclub owner and pimp who is falsely suspected of the murder and loses everything as a result.
To keep herself and her friends out of jail, Masako must agree to go into business with the loan shark, offering a "body disposal" service to the local crime boss. Meanwhile Satake has set his revenge plan in motion, resulting in death for one of the four women, financial ruin for another and a terrifying cat-and-mouse game with Masako.
This was my first taste of Japanese crime fiction and I enjoyed every chapter, the last 100 pages or so especially. Satake's contribution to the "body disposal" service was a sensational plot twist! The book explores much more than the crime aspect: the role that women play in Japanese culture, the unfair advantages of being physically attractive and young, the constant struggle to make enough money to survive, the burden of family.
While the book is centred around a murder and dismemberment, it seemed surprisingly "clean" to me. A review on the back of the book states, "Daring and disturbing, Out is prepared to push the limits of this world - not only in violence and sex but also in human outlook..." I didn't feel it did this to such an extreme, but it did seem the most REAL book I've read in a long time. Five stars!