Every year when I close up my house in Canada and head to the Mysterious East, I bring one carry-on suitcase full of reading materials for two reasons: 1) books in Japan, particularly English-language ones, are quite pricey (and the selection leans toward the steamy potboiler end of the reading spectrum), and 2) it gives me a leg up on my reviewing, as I can often get books from BookPage several months ahead of their publication dates. Then, of course, each month Abby (my column editor at BookPage) sends another box of the latest acquisitions my way, so I always have a good selection to choose from in putting together Whodunit. The small problem is my small apartment, which is much too tiny to house a large collection of books, especially ones that I have already finished. It is, in fact, barely large enough to house a collection of socks, never mind books. I have a couple of English-reading friends (two Germans and an American) to whom I pass along the cream of the crop, but by and large my friends here are Japanese, and while their spoken English is serviceable, the bulk of their reading is done in their native language. So, a couple of times each year, I enlist the aid of an aide, load up two bicycle baskets full of late-model low-mileage suspense novels (perhaps forty or so at a time), and truck them to the Nerima-ku library, Oizumi branch, wherein can be found the BookPage shelf, two years of accumulated mysteries arranged in alphabetical order by author, Japanese alphabetical order, that is: A, E, I, O, U, K, S, T, N, H, M, Y, R, W. Authors like Michael Connelly, for instance, would fall under K, as that is the sound of the hard C in his last name. The Parkers, Robert and T. Jefferson, might be found at the beginning or the end, you just never know. Still, the fact that they can be found at all in English in a suburban Tokyo library is pretty cool, even if you have to search a bit to find them.
I cannot say whether it is a happy accident or something altogether more otherworldly, but it happens that just as I head back to Japan and Korea for the winter, three of the four books I will be reviewing for this month’s Whodunit column have distinct connections to the Lands of the Rising Sun and the Morning Calm, respectively.
Andrew Vachss’ Haiku features an enigmatic Japanese lead character by the name of Ho, a martial arts master fallen on hard times, living beneath a pier in the company of a quintet of homeless and overtly eccentric acolytes. When an elegant Rolls Royce visits their quayside lair and its owner casts a mysterious package into the harbor, the nefarious quartet considers how best to turn a profit on this potentially valuable piece of intelligence.
Then, with the riveting GI Bones, author Martin Limon brings back military policemen Bascom and Sueno, who patrol the streets of Itaewon (the no-holds-barred pleasure quarter of Seoul), attempting to maintain military justice in the Korea of the heady 1970s. The partners are charged with the disinterring of the bones of a controversial military man from the days immediately following the close of the Korean Conflict some twenty years before.
The third member of the triumvirate, Laura Joh Rowland, offers up The Cloud Pavilion, the latest installment in the saga of Inspector Ichiro Sano, police aide to the Shogun of Japan more than 300 years ago. A series of kidnap/rapes have terrorized the women of Edo (feudal-era Tokyo), and now the Shogun’s wife has disappeared as well. Intrigues within the Edo Castle walls plague Sano’s investigation at every turn, and the Shogun has made it abundantly clear that Sano’s fate will not be a happy one if he cannot solve the mystery post haste.
So what about the fourth book to be reviewed, you may be wondering? It is Don Bruns’ clever Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, book two of the adventures of a pair of ne’er-do-well Floridians with dreams much broader than their limited talents can bring to fruition. Still, it is a hoot and a half to watch them try. It likely would have been more dramatic, not to mention more eerie, if all four books had had some Asian connection, but it may be a case of the rule being proved by the exception, and it is a question deeper than I am prepared to ponder on the eve of my departure. So sayonara for now; stay tuned for my next missive from Japan in a few days.
According to numerous studies that track this sort of thing, the crime rate in Tokyo is the lowest of any large city in the world, particularly when it comes to violent crimes. By and large, the Japanese are peaceful folks, and arguments rarely seem to escalate into fisticuffs or worse. That said, when something does happen, it can often be worthy of the front page of lurid tabloids worldwide. For example:
WOMAN SLAYS HUSBAND
Chops Into Bite-Size Pieces
Feeds to Bears in Ueno Zoo
Perhaps it is that, as a society, the Japanese are somewhat regimented, so when they do step out, they do so in grand style. Very few Westerners get to see any of this firsthand; in fact, the only American journalist ever to be admitted to the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club is one Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice; An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.
Adelstein’s bio sheet relates that he went to Japan at age nineteen, in search of peace and tranquility, but instead found a job as crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Tokyo’s largest newspapers. He worked 80-hour weeks, just like his Japanese counterparts, covering the infamous Chichibu Snack-Mama Murder Case, the Saitama Dog-Lover Serial Disappearances (in case you’re wondering, unlike the tongue-in-cheek “woman slays husband” headline above, these are actual cases), as well as numerous yakuza-related incidents of extortion, corruption, and even human-trafficking. In fact, after leaving the newspaper, Adelstein went on to become chief investigator for the US State Department study on human-trafficking in Japan. (Follow-up note: I got an email from the author, and as it turns out, he was chief investigator for a State Department-sponsored study, not directly employed by the State Department, so I wanted to clear that up.)
Tokyo Vice is a compelling look at a city of contradictions, by turns funny, grisly, and sobering, but always riveting and entertaining.
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan