Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Japantown by Barry Lancet

San Francisco art dealer Jim Brodie is fluent in Japanese because he grew up in Japan as his father was establishing a private security business. The father, now dead, left his half of the business to Jim, who over the years improved his fighting, shooting, and detecting skills. The most precious thing in Brodie's life is his six-year-old daughter, Jennie.

On page 1, a SFPD Lieutenant calls Brodie to Japantown to consult on a murder. Five tourists from Tokyo, three adults and two children, have been slaughtered on the street. No witnesses, no clues except a piece of paper with a Japanese character written on it—the same character that had been painted on the Los Angeles sidewalk in front of the house in which Brodie's Japanese wife, uncle, and aunt had died in a fire three years earlier. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Japantown is a superior thriller, not a mystery. While Brodie narrates the bulk of the story, author Barry Lancet switches to third person POV at the end of Chapter 2 to show us a mysterious character scanning the Japantown murder scene with night vision goggles. This character, representing something called Soga, recognizes that Brodie is not a cop, that he's wearing a Japanese ball cap ("Bad news"), and that with a photograph of the license on Brodie's Cutlass and a phone call he'd have the owner's name, address, and other information within thirty minutes. Brodie doesn't know what he's stepped in but we readers have intimations.

I don't want to say much more. This is Lancet's first thriller, and you can learn more about him, the book, and Japan on his website. Lancet's visit to Japan turned into "a position at one of the country's top publishing houses, and in twenty-five years he developed numerous books across many fields but mostly on Japanese culture—including art, crafts, cuisine, history, fiction, Zen gardens, martial arts, Asian philosophy, and more. All of which were sold in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. The work opened doors to many traditional worlds, lending a unique insider's view to his own writing."

Perhaps as a result, Japantown does not read like a first effort. The Soga organization that Brodie and his associates in the Tokyo detective agency have to combat, while extraordinary is not entirely preposterous. Lancet, after all, has the example of Aum Shinrikyo as a secretive, vicious group. Because Lancet knows Japan—the language, the culture, the custom—so well and is able to weave that factual, authoritative information into the narrative, we are willing (I am willing) to suspend disbelief and accept the novel's more improbable incidents and revelations. If you want a thrilling ride on a fast machine, Japantown is your vehicle.

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