Japan's enigmatic history and culture have inspired enough American thrillers to constitute their own cozy little subgenre. It's hard to pinpoint what qualities of this complex and exotic nation hold such allure for generations of Western suspense authors.
Is it the serene, understated elegance that defines the Zen and Shinto aesthetic? Is it the country's unique historical evolution from isolated, feudal shogunate to a high-tech, futuristic player on the world stage? Or is it simply all the over-the-top martial arts imagery, replete with ninja outfits, throwing stars, Samurai swords and blood-splattered tatami mats that occupy the popular imagination? Probably a little from all of the above.
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The late cult author Trevanian delivered his contribution to this theme with "Shibumi," a satirical spy novel from the 1970s about a blond, blue-eyed assassin who learns meditation and killing techniques in his adopted country and harbors a love for Go (an Asian game similar to chess). Next there was Eric Von Lustbader's Nicholas Linnear series, including "The Ninja" and "The Miko," which followed blade-wielding, kimono-clad warriors through the country's rise as an industrial powerhouse during the 1980s.
Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun" was published during the apex of American paranoia over Japanese economic ascendency at a time when Ross Perot was running for president and the Tokyo stock market was supposedly going to take over the world.
Now along comes Barry Lancet's "Japantown," the story of a San Francisco-based American antique dealer with strong ties to Japan and clues to a horrible crime committed by a secret society of ancient killers. The immediate question is whether this mystery could add anything fresh to the archetype of the gaijin detective.
The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Mr. Lancet, an American who has lived and worked in Japan for decades, has clearly done his homework. He commands a much stronger knowledge of the culture than his predecessors and actually contributes some new insights to anyone who has any interest into the basic themes and subject matter.
Moreover, his experience living in a foreign culture for so long seems to provide a deep and easy familiarity with the dilemmas that his protagonist faces trying to bridge the gap between two vastly different cultures.
His knowledge of the language makes him adept at citing linguistic nuances while also translating them into understandable English, framing the communication barrier that often makes people from two different cultures seem more different than they really are.
Mr. Lancet's hero Jim Brodie has grown up going back and forth between Japan and his home in San Francisco to acquire valuable artifacts for his antique dealership.
His late father owned a private investigation firm in Tokyo, where he still maintains a business interest and familiarity with skills of that dangerous trade. He is also a single father raising a young biracial daughter since his Japanese wife was killed mysteriously in Los Angeles several years earlier.
When an entire family is gunned down execution-style in San Francisco's quaint, tourist-friendly Japantown district, Brodie is summoned by a friend on the local police force to assist in the investigation. The seemingly flawless hit yields only one clue at the scene of the crime.
As a trademark, the killer left an obscure kanji, a written ideogram in the Japanese language that combines the ancient symbols for the word "king" and "collapse." Brodie recognizes this kanji from the scene of his wife's death years earlier. He goes to Japan to seek the help of investigators from his father's detective agency and ends up on the trail of an ancient network of assassins.
It's true that parts of "Japantown" will feel very familiar to readers who are acquainted with this kind of story, combining the plotting and details of a whodunit suspense with the flavoring of international spy intrigue.
But Mr. Lancet's strong writing and deep passion for the material carry the story and characters far enough to hold the interest of any reader who enjoys this sort of story.
As any foreigner who has traveled to Japan will tell you, the country and the culture tend to evoke strong reactions from outsiders, whether good or bad. A visitor either develops a very strong affinity for the place or an immediate distaste. That's probably true of this novel as well.
Pittsburgh native Dmitri Ragano, a former resident of Japan, is the author of three novels. His most recent is "The Fugitive Grandma" (dmitriragano.com).