• Barry Lancet
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Steve Sacks
  • September 4, 2013

A thriller written with an insider’s knowledge of Japan.

Aside from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown, Japan has not been much in the international headlines since the “Japan as No. 1” days of the 1980s. In 1992 the Japanese bubble economy burst, but not before spawning Michael Crichton’s archetypal thriller Rising Sun, which looms large in the background of Japantown, author Barry Lancet’s first work of fiction. Yet Lancet’s fluency in the Japanese language, extensive knowledge of, and empathy with, the culture from which it is inseparable, and gift for creating likable (as well as despicable) characters add depth and authenticity to this captivating thriller that other non-Japanese authors rarely attain when writing about the nation.

Decades ago, Lancet’s love affair with the culture landed him a job at a Japanese publishing company, where he collaborated on books about Japanese fine arts, literature and the like. It is therefore no surprise that this novel’s main character, Jim Brodie, is a dealer in Japanese art and half-owner of a Tokyo-based detective agency. Born in Japan to American parents, fully bilingual and extensively trained in Japanese arts, both fine and martial, Brodie has the kind of life the author might have chosen for himself.

Or maybe not. Brodie’s life features personal tragedies that rapidly multiply. The story opens with a brutal quintuple murder in San Francisco’s Japantown. It’s clearly a hit, for there is absolutely no evidence – except for a mysterious kanji (Japanese ideogram) scrawled on a scrap of paper at the crime scene. The police summon Brodie to assist with the investigation.

Within hours, his 6-year-old daughter is threatened by a highly trained Japanese thug, and a maverick high-tech mogul engages Brodie’s PI agency to solve the murders. A scholar traces the enigmatic ideogram to a tiny village in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture — and promptly disappears. The case spirals out of control as it takes Brodie to his agency’s Tokyo office, to the farming town of Soga-jujo for the annual Festival of the Dead, then to harrowing encounters with cruel and methodical enemies in Tokyo and San Francisco, setting up the denouement on a secluded estate on Long Island’s North Shore.

This engaging tale would not be out of place on an airport newsstand, but Lancet has clearly set himself to a higher standard. The best authors in the popular mystery genre use a variety of techniques to add an extra dimension to their work. One thinks of Alan Furst’s deep historical knowledge and noir atmospherics, S.J. Rozan’s dry New York humor and snappy dialogue, or Tony Hillerman’s passion for Navajo country and its people’s traditions. Similarly, behind the fast-paced and engrossing plot of Rising Sun is its author’s polemic on one of that era’s top public policy issues. While Japantown might have benefited from the craftsmanship that Crichton honed over decades, the distinctive elements of Lancet’s work are less likely to be overtaken by events.

One of these elements is Lancet’s profound understanding of Japanese culture. In terms at once accurate and unselfconscious, the author shows us Brodie’s colleague Noda slurping his soba noodles; a Japanese government minister jockeying for position with a behind-the-scenes power broker; and rural townspeople’s none-too-friendly reception of investigators from the big city. Even when Brodie studies the arch-villain’s calligraphy for clues to his personality, Lancet is clearly writing based on personal experience rather than mere background research.

The other engrossing element is the novel’s main characters. Foremost is Brodie, from whose viewpoint most of the book is written. Far from a mere mouthpiece for multiculturalism, he comes across as a complex figure with a genuine personal history, at once blessed with extensive expertise in his chosen fields and dogged by the kind of emotional conflicts common to the human experience. Fearing danger to himself, his colleagues and his daughter, Brodie considers giving up the investigation, but concludes, “If you let a [crime like] Japantown go unanswered, how could you look yourself in the mirror every morning? Problem was it happened far too often. To all of us.”

In view of the extensive Japanese influence on Lancet’s aesthetic, it’s perhaps no surprise that three of the most influential characters never appear in person, but are more like the “shadow shoguns” who often linger just offstage in classic Kabuki theater. Here, two are dead: Brodie’s father Jake, who taught his son to “stand tall. For the little guy — and for yourself;” and Brodie’s wife Mieko, murdered years before by the same thugs who perpetrated the Japantown massacre. Brodie sensed in her “an inkling of a Zen ideal about peace and knowing.” Her advice, “Lose a battle, but don’t lose yourself,” sustains him at many of the story’s crisis points.

The third “character” is the kanji itself, which an expert “suspect[s] might be [artificially] constructed … as if the creator was less concerned with meaning than with merging elements to make a symbol. A logo, if you will.” It indeed turns out to be a kind of logo for the brutal criminal enterprise behind the mayhem. And, as Lancet confesses in an afterword, it “was created for purposes of this novel, but its components were taken from existing characters.” Although I have studied Japanese for 30 years, I was kept guessing until the very end. Those with little knowledge of things Japanese will nonetheless be kept in suspense by the twists and turns of the underlying story — and edified and entertained along the way.

Steve Sacks is a professional jazz musician specializing in Brazilian and Latin American music. He shares with the author a 30-year love affair with Japan and things Japanese, personified in his wife Tomoko, who hails from a farming village in Shiga Prefecture much like Soga-jujo… minus the mayhem. Visit www.stevesacks.com.

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