UPDATE November 2014: Japantown just won the Barry Award for Best First Novel at Bouchercon Mystery Convention! Well deserved!
At ScienceThrillers.com, I specialize in books that have scientific or medical content (see my post on how this is different from science fiction). But sometimes I come across a book that simply is too good not to share, even if it lies outside my technophile niche. Today is #3 in my new and entirely unpredictable series of Book Buzz posts.
Japantown by Barry Lancet, member of International Thriller Writers Debut Class 2013-14. Release date: September 3, 2013. Japantown is one of the two best debut thrillers I’ve read. Summary from the publisher:
San Francisco antiques dealer Jim Brodie recently inherited a stake in his father’s Tokyo-based private investigation firm, which means the single father of six-year-old Jenny is living a busy intercontinental life, traveling to Japan to acquire art and artifacts for his store and consulting on Brodie Security’s caseload at home and abroad. One night, an entire family is gunned down in San Francisco’s bustling Japantown neighborhood, and Brodie is called on by the SFPD to decipher the lone clue left at the crime scene: a unique Japanese character printed on a slip of paper drenched in blood. Brodie can’t read the clue. But he may have seen it before—at the scene of his wife’s death in a house fire four years ago. With his deep array of Asian connections and fluency in Japanese, Brodie sets out to solve a seemingly perfect crime and at the same time learn whether his wife’s tragic death was more than just an accident. And as he unravels a web of intrigue stretching back centuries and connected to the murders in San Francisco, the Japantown killer retaliates with a new target: Brodie’s daughter.
Japantown has a classic thriller form: an amateur protagonist thrust into an evil global conspiracy, a motive to avenge his wife’s death, himself and his daughter in peril. Taken as a typical thriller, it’s extremely well written. Here’s what’s fresh: the “voice.” Welcome to the exotic Orient, the mysterious East. Japantown is a Pacific Rim thriller. It’s set in San Francisco and various places in Japan. These settings, and their local cultures, are central to the story. (This aspect and parts of the writing reminded me of Raymond Chandler and his Los Angeles.) Author Barry Lancet is the right man to pen this novel: he’s an American who lived in Japan for over 25 years, in the business of publishing books on Japanese culture for a Western audience. He not only knows the language and the esoteric facts of Japan and Japanese history, he clearly has an intuitive understanding of what is in many ways a closed society. The unwritten rules of power and influence in Japan are a major theme of this novel. The use of a kanji, or Japanese language written character, is a brilliant plot device. Here’s an excerpt of a conversation the protagonist has elucidating clues from this single handwritten bit of calligraphy:
“First, the awkwardness you so correctly noted suggests that the writer does not pen the character frequently.” “So when he does write it, it’s probably for a specific purpose?” “That would be my assumption. Moreover, the inconsistent hand and dullness of line point to a limited education, probably ending in the sixth or seventh year of schooling.”
The conversation goes on to analyze other possible interpretations of the scribe. All of them are believable and backed up by subtly informed facts about the Japanese art of calligraphy, Japanese education, and the Japanese diaspora abroad. Telling details about Japanese culture abound. For example: “Tejima gave me the standard Japanese greeting followed by a slip of a bow that ungraciously put me in my place as a low-level guest. He would not expect a Causcasian guest to know the difference.” FYI Japantown is a fairly violent novel, but not particularly graphic in its descriptions of the violence. It has no profanity. The main weakness that stands out in my mind is the inability of the (many) bad guys to kill the protagonist. Especially in the overly-prolonged final climax, villain after villain skips his chance to just put a bullet through the guy’s head. But hey, that’s what happens in thrillers and of course I wanted the good guy to win. A distinctive and well-written debut novel with a fresh take on the international thriller genre. Recommend. Unusual words: soba; 47 ronin; kuroko; yakuza; Kempei Tai; daimyo; shogun; nisei; J-town; samue; Soga-jujo
If you like the San Francisco setting in Japantown, you might enjoy: Devil’s Plaything by Matt Richtel.
Japantown now has a sequel: Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet