The Tokyo Motor Show, 2009

October 31, 2009

Welcome to the latest iteration of the Tokyo Motor Show, Japan’s blowout celebration of all things transportation (albeit a bit more subdued than in prior years, likely fallout from the Great Financial Meltdown of 2009). The list of former exhibitors missing in action this year reads like a Who’s Who of the automotive industry: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Renault, Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley, Rolls Royce, VW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Saab, Volvo, Jaguar, Mini, Lamborghini, and Land Rover. In fact, the only three non-Japanese exhibitors I noticed were the comparatively tiny firms of Alfa-Romeo, Caterham and Lotus. That said, the Japanese firms (Toyota, Lexus, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Daihatsu, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Subaru) took up the slack nicely, offering up concept cars galore (this year’s theme being “Eco”), and of course the ubiquitous mini-skirted Tokyo Motor Show lovelies who graced every stand.


An early Friday crowd. Don’t these people have to work or go to school?


The future of scooters, as foretold by Yamaha


Saki-chan on a Buell 1200cc bike, roughly 24 times the displacement of her usual transport, a Honda scooter


Honda’s hybrid sports couple, the CR-Z, destined for the US in 2010


Honda’s hotrod Civic Si-R, which makes the US Civic look a little long in the tooth


The Suzuki Lapin, sort of a ¾ scale version of the Nissan Cube


Not one ounce of retro in the Mazda Kiyora concept car!


And this, believe it or not, is a Subaru!


Part of the Lexus exhibit was an industrial art gallery, featuring this uber-cool concept bicycle...


...and the Lucite Lexus, a see-through version that changes color while you watch


Little Caterham show off its back-to-the-basics roadster: no a/c, no power windows (no windows, actually), basically nothing but engine and tires (and speed and crazed laughter)


A particularly fetching example of the Tokyo Motor Show lovelies


Nissan’s Zero-Emissions Land Glider, seats behind the other!



Mitsubishi ups the ante for smooth SUV crossovers, with the titanium-hued PX-MiEV, a plug-in hybrid


The teen-fantasy Lotus Elite...


...and its altogether more sinister cousin, the Stealth


And a couple of clever ideas from Daihatsu, an open air conveyance called the Basket, whose back seats fold down and create a pickup truck bed...


And the DecaDeca, a squarish mini-minivan that doubles as a mobile office.


And finally, a Crayola box of Toyota IQs; note that the rear windshield wipers have been surreptitiously placed in the "down" position by a young fellow with an exceptionally mischievous grin

So, the auto industry may be down, but if the Tokyo Motor Show is any indication, it is definitely not out. The advance guard of ecocars, the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, have made their way stateside, and the next generation is en route, featuring minivans, crossovers, stately luxoboats and even sports cars! To paraphrase the legendary Henry Ford, they are available in any color you want, as long as it’s Green.

Letters to Ed (or in this case, Bruce): Errata; Kudos; Carps; Where’s Waldo, er, Wacek?

October 29, 2009

From time to time, responses get posted about one blog entry or another of mine, and some of them may never get read, as there is just a small hyperlink connection to comments at the end of each entry. Predictably, the spam filter catches the bulk of the “comments”, thinly veiled promotional material for inexpensive Canadian drugs, entertainment centers (?), grand pianos (??), and other more, um, grown-up dalliances. In between the weeds grow roses, though, and I would like to share a few of those with you (in no particular order). 

Erratum #1:

On October 14, 2009, I published an entry entitled “Otto Penzler and the History of Mystery”, in honor of the publication of his new book, The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. In preparing the post, I misinterpreted something I read in the intro to the book, and then disseminated this misinformation to the unsuspecting world. Sorry about that. Otto Penzler was kind enough to set me straight, and I would like to pass on his comments: 

Dear Bruce,
Thanks very much for this very generous piece. But you have mixed up two publishing programs at The Mysterious Bookshop. The Christmas story comes out every year around Thanksgiving and is an original story with the requirements you state. There is a separate series, called “Mysterious Profiles,” for which authors wrote biographies/analyses/profiles of their series characters. It is the latter that has been collected in THE LINEUP. The former (17 stories in 17 years) will be collected in a book next year by Vanguard and titled A MYSTERIOUS CHRISTMAS. No need to post this, of course. Thanks again for the kind words. Otto

 Erratum #2: 

On September 2, 2009, I published “Tokyo Vice”, about Jake Adelstein’s book of the same name.  Adelstein, the only American journalist ever to be admitted to the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, offered a unique Western look at crime and its fallout in the world’s largest (and by most accounts, safest) city. In reading the promo materials that accompanied the book, I incorrectly noted that he had worked for the State Department study on human trafficking; close, but no cigar. Jake Adelstein responded with the following:

Thank you very much for writing about the book so eloquently.
I should clarify that the US State Department funded the study of human trafficking in Japan but I didn’t work for them directly, although I have happily provided them with relavent materials over the years. There were many reasons why the research was done that way.


Author Tim Hallinan is a frequent responder to this blog, for which I am honored. I have reviewed two of Tim’s books in the past couple of years, The Fourth Watcher and Breathing Water, both of which were great, by the way. You can see the reviews at, or excerpts thereof on Tim’s site, .  We discovered in one another a mutual interest, bordering on obsession, with strange-flavored KitKat chocolate bars (there have been some 160+ varieties on offer in Japan over the years, including Butter Baked Potato, Roasted Corn, and Cider Pepper… seriously), and in response to his note, below, I sent a small package bearing a couple of the stranger flavors to him last fall : Lemon Vinegar and Apple Vinegar.

Bruce — You gave me the laugh of the week. My wife is a KitKat junkie, and I forwarded to her, and we now toss each other ideas for a new Japanese KitKat flavor practically every time we pass each other in the halls. (This house is too big for us.) My favorite at the moment is the ever-popular Wool Turkey Chip KitKat. Are you going to try the Lemon Vinegar flavor? For us? Please? 

Tim also responded to one of my earliest posts, on the weird, wonderful puns known as “Tom Swifties” (June 13, 2009). 

Oh. Oh. I’d completely forgotten about Swifties. Sometimes time is kind. I can only think of one that’s even halfway worthy of consideration: “That woman ain’t my mother’s mama,” Tom said ungrammatically. I have tried for two days to think of another one, but that’s it. I have labored and brought forth a gnat. These are the humor equivalent of the new chicken-salad KitKats. 


“Richard Duval” wrote: I am a Myron Bolitar fan. His second banana the dealy Win is worth a mention.

Bruce replies: I knew when I wrote this that I was leaving out some of the all-time greats: Paul Drake and Della Street (from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series); Milo Sturgis (from Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series); Grace Makutsi (from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series); the list goes on and on. And on. Odds were good I would leave out somebody’s favorite, most likely lots of somebodies’. Heck, I left out some of my favorites, hence the “woefully incomplete” in the title. 

“Cindy” wrote: Do I detect a bit of bias here? There ARE lots of female second bananas, too. 

Bruce replies: Bias? Of course I am biased! It would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. This is because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, as do most women and all smart men, that there are exceptionally few female second bananas, the reason being that women are now and will always be first bananas! 

Where’s Waldo Wacek? 

“Janice” wrote: Hello – I have been desperately searching for Wacek Kozlowski. He knows me and I know would like to get in touch with me. Can anyone connect me with him or give me my contact information so that he can get hold of me??? Thank you so much for your assistance in advance!

 Bruce replies: I haven’t been in touch with Wacek for perhaps a couple of years, as I don’t spend much time in the US nowadays. We sometimes collide, like passing asteroids, when we happen to be in Nashville at the same time, and we always pick up just where we left off. Then we each go off into some other orbit for a couple more years, during which time we are out of contact. So, Wacek, if you are out there reading this, Janice would love to hear from you. So would I.

A Brief and Woefully Incomplete History of Second Bananas

October 25, 2009

The second banana is a time-honored tradition in suspense fiction, dating back at least to Sherlock Holmes’ admiring foil, Dr. Watson. Over the years, countless mystery writers have introduced eager readers to a plethora of unforgettable sidekicks, ranging from hardboiled private detectives to sybaritic mathematicians to aging hippies, plus every gradation in between. At times the second banana has been the chronicler of the adventure; at other times, he is the brawn behind the brains of the lead character; every now and then he is an idiot-savant, asking just the right questions to put our hero back on the right track to solving the mystery. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the more memorable examples:

A Spenser mystery

A Hawk/Spenser mystery

Hawk: perhaps it is his first name, perhaps his last (some suggest it is neither), not unlike his similarly mono-named employer, Spenser. Robert B. Parker’s intrepid duo are twin sons of different parents, one black, one white, and neither one recognizing any shades of grey. The two met in a boxing match, the proverbial tussle between Superman and God, predictably with no clear winner. Spenser is the hero, nominally, but most readers would, in their heart of hearts, prefer to be Hawk. He is lethally cool, he gets all the girls, and he even gets in a good line or two, occasionally at Spenser’s expense.


Nero WolfeArchie Goodwin: the wisecracking babe-appreciating narrator of Rex Stout’s renowned Nero Wolfe series. Nero Wolfe never leaves the house, dividing his time among eating, drinking, tending his beloved orchids, and occasionally, when his cash stash is dwindling, reluctantly putting his brain to work solving mysteries. Archie does all the legwork, takes cheerful and regular potshots at his employer’s sybaritic lifestyle, and occasionally contributes a bit of insight into the mystery. But only occasionally, and even then it is likely to be trumped by Wolfe’s uncanny ability to interpret relevant clues from the comfort of his office armchair.

Picture 5Meyer: longtime resident of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar Marina, in the legendary John D. MacDonald’s influential series featuring Meyer’s neighbor and occasional protégé Travis McGee. Although entitled to the honorific “Doctor” (he is an economist by profession, although largely retired), he demurs politely: “Just Meyer, please.” He is the go-to guy for Travis McGee whenever McGee’s street smarts fail him and he needs the input of someone with “book learnin”. To all indications he is independently wealthy, or at least strongly self-sufficient, although he occasionally shares in the spoils of one of McGee’s well-intentioned “recovery” scams. The amiably ursine Meyer dispenses measured advice over a chess board, piloting McGee back to the morally acceptable path when his libido carries him too far afield.

Dead SilenceTomlinson: the New-Aging hippie compatriot of Randy Wayne White’s Gulf Coast marine biologist protagonist Doc Ford. Tomlinson is ex-CIA, covert ops, witness to and perpetrator of unspeakable acts in a past he tries daily to exorcise with whatever drugs may be at hand. He is, by most measures, an amiably stoned artefact of the sixties. That said, his CIA training has come to Doc Ford’s aid on more than one occasion, and he can be counted on to do the right thing, albeit in his own time, as I’ve noted in past reviews of White’s novels. There is more than a bit of similarity between Doc Ford and Travis McGee, but their respective sidekicks could scarcely be less alike. It would be fascinating to watch a chess game between the two, though…

Picture 1Joe Pike: the baddest good guy of all, onetime second banana to Robert Crais’ laid back PI Elvis Cole, and now promoted to star of his own books, 2007’s The Watchman, and the upcoming The First Rule. The Cole books are related in the first person by the protagonist, who accords Joe Pike deference and occasionally awe, in addition to strong friendship. The Pike books are written in the third person, in a voice more serious than that of Elvis Cole (who, by the way, makes an appearance as a larger-than-minor character, but by no means a second banana). The taciturn ex-Ranger and ex-cop has grown over the years, from a cartoonish one-dimensional character to a complex and dangerously charismatic protagonist. Maybe this is the reason for the promotion? (Note: rumor has it that Crais intended to kill off Joe Pike after his first appearance, an idea that Pike reportedly rejected out of hand!)

Can the Tuna Salad Sandwich Flavor KitKat Be Far Behind?

October 22, 2009


Here are the two latest KitKat flavors: Ginger Ale and Health Drink (featuring a melange of apple and carrot). Yikes!

The Return of Fat Andy

October 22, 2009

As the deadline crunch approaches for the BookPage Whodunit column each month, several last-minute mini-crises can have an effect on which books make the cut, and which ones are passed over. Occasionally a book arrives a bit late, and turns out to be so good that it displaces one that is already slated for review. Or, for reasons known only to a select few (of whom I am apparently not a member), a publication date gets pushed back, and a replacement book must be hastily plucked from the stacks. Every now and then, a book arrives way too late to be covered, but my thoughtful editors send it along anyway, as they know I will enjoy reading it even if it is past the “use-by” date in the column.

midnight fugueSuch is the case with the newest “Dalziel and Pascoe” book by Reginald Hill, Midnight Fugue. For those unfamiliar with the series, there are some twenty-four installments at this point. They feature a pair of Yorkshire cops, Peter Pascoe and “Fat Andy” Dalziel, whose surname is inexplicably pronounced “Dee-ell” with the accent on the “ell”. (A small digression: England is rife with these names that nobody can decipher: Talliaferro, pronounced “Tolliver”; Featherstone-Haw, pronounced “Fanshawe”, the list goes on.) Nobody dares call Dalziel “Fat Andy” to his face, but when he is mentioned in the third person, the word “Andy” is never spoken without the pejorative qualifying adjective. Two books back, it looked like we were going to lose Fat Andy, as he had the misfortune to be at ground-zero just in time for a terrorist bombing. A protracted stay at a seaside sanatorium has brought him partway back to his feisty former self, but it seems he is still not firing on all eight cylinders.

Enter Mick Purdy, a fellow cop Dalziel knew in the old days when he was coming up through the ranks. Purdy’s inamorata seeks to have her husband declared legally dead so she and Purdy can tie the knot. Trouble is, said “dead” husband appears to have been spotted, quite alive, and quite recently. Purdy cannot look into the matter officially, so he enlists Dalziel’s aid on the QT. It all seems fairly routine until a nosy reporter gets his face blown off by person or persons unknown, and Dalziel’s assistant is left for dead at the scene of the crime. Anecdotal evidence points to one Goldie Gidman, a reformed(?) street thug who happens to be the father of the Conservative candidate-in-waiting for the office of Prime Minister, and nobody wants to be the one responsible for opening that can of worms. Except, of course, Andy Dalziel…

As usual, Reginald Hill is in fine fettle, peppering the dialog with Fat Andy’s curmudgeonly observations on modern life, advancing the story line smartly, and keeping the identity of the villain(s) a closely held secret until the final moments.

Rittererry Clitic Blanches Out!

October 20, 2009

Once a reviewer, always a reviewer, I guess; I tend to review everything that comes my way (cars, food, books, music, travel, movies, politics, the list is seemingly without end) and to pass along picks (or pans) to anyone who cares to listen. I understand that it can be a fine line between offering an opinion, and inflicting same, so I try to keep my eye-rolling muscles in check when, say, my sister tells me that she has just bought another Saturn (some time after the first one’s engine blew up, and not long before the entire Saturn division of GM followed suit). The four words that will never pass through the portals of my lips (within earshot of my sister, at least) are “Shoulda bought a Honda…”, even if I might be thinking it rather loudly.

However, by and large, I prefer to give good reviews. If a book (song, car, etc.) sucks so badly that nobody would want to buy it, I really don’t want to waste valuable time and ink trashing it. I don’t even want to read (listen to, drive) it. I just want it to disappear from my life with the utmost dispatch. I particularly enjoy being able to recommend a dark horse, though, and being in Japan gives me a rare opportunity to discover things not readily available in the West, or rather things that are available but not so easy to find unless you know what to look for. So, for my first public venture into non-book-reviewing, I would like to introduce you to four Asian music sensations, ones you may not have run across up until now.

The first two folks I want to mention are Kotaro Oshio and Sung Ha Jung, two of the finest acoustic guitar players in Asia. Kotaro is an Osaka-born artist who should appeal strongly to fans of the late Michael Hedges. He often uses open tunings, non-standard guitar tunings which allow for complementary “drone” strings to resonate even when not being plucked, lending an ethereal quality to the music. He has also borrowed from the Hedges playbook in his use of fingerpicking and percussive arrangements, playing melody, rhythm and bass line seamlessly, without support of backing musicians. He was so well received at the 2002 Montreux Jazz Festival that he was invited to jam with blues legend B.B. King, and quickly became known as “that incredible Japanese guitarist.” Check out his YouTube videos from Montreux, “Bolero”, and “Hard Rain”.

Korean-born Sungha Jung has been playing guitar for only two years, and already he has caught the eye of such axe legends as Trace Bundy and Tommy Emmanuel. He is a YouTube sensation in Japan, with acoustic versions of such diverse pieces as “Fields of Gold”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “The Mission Impossible Theme”, “Hit the Road, Jack”, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to name but a few. And get this: Sungha Jung just turned thirteen! There is no posturing, no strange facial expressions, just a tasteful and masterful rendering of everything he turns his hand(s) to. You can find his stuff on YouTube both under Sung Ha Jung and Sungha Jung, and there is enough to keep you busy (and entertained) for hours. PS, if you play guitar, this kid will either inspire you to practice harder, or just give up entirely!

Okinawa folksinger Rimi Natsukawa was singing “Hana” the first time I heard her, backed by (of all things) a ukulele player. Not just any ukulele player, but the estimable Jake Shimabukuro. Natsukawa and Shimabukuro share an Okinawan heritage, although Shimabukuro was born and raised in Hawaii. He has elevated the indigenous Hawaiian instrument to musical places nobody thought to take it before, much in the way that Bela Fleck reinvented the role of the banjo in contemporary jazz. Rimi Natsukawa, for her part, has one of the purest voices in contemporary music; think “Alison Krauss singing in Japanese”, and you won’t be far off the mark. Together, they create a haunting Asian-folk fusion that will pull at your heartstrings even though the lyrics are in a foreign language. “Hana and Warabigami” is the title of the YouTube video they did together, but both can be found separately and in concert with others (including the aforementioned Sungha Jung and Tommy Emmanuel, with whom Shimabukuro does a killer version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”).

This Just In, the Latest Transportation Upgrade

October 18, 2009

I didn’t exactly plan it this way, but in North America, where I spend only a couple of months each year, I have two cars (and typically only one driver), and in the Far East, where I spend most of the rest of my time, I have no car at all. For several years I have made do with public transportation and a bicycle, of all things. I wrote this to some friends shortly after arriving in Japan:

For the first time since I was a teenager, my primary transportation is a bicycle. Not a fancy one, either, just a simple one-speed 27″ normal bike. A ten-speed would be superfluous here, as the terrain is quite flat for the most part. Mine doesn’t have a brand name; I could have gotten a FatCat for 1000 yen more, or a Goofy (a strangely popular name here; there is also a baseball team called the Goofys) for a bit more still. But mine, a no-name plain-Jane, was on sale for 7700 yen (about $65 at the time), a scratch-and-dent special, only with no scratches or dents that I could find. It is silver in color; my other choices were a strident blue or a brownish maroon shade, neither of which spoke to me. It has a basket in front of the handlebars, and a flat carrying tray over the back fender. In the US, it would be a girl’s bike, as the top frame rail is quite low, not the crotch-crushing bar found on boys’ bikes stateside. You simply step through the bike to get on it, quite civilized really, rather than swinging a leg over in horse-mount style. I practiced for a couple of hours on the back streets around my apartment before venturing out into the real world. In Japan, in theory at least, driving is on the left side of the road. This theory apparently does not apply to bicycles, which use either side of the road, or the sidewalk, for that matter. When two bicycles approach one another on the sidewalk, someone moves. Could be to the left, could be to the right, you never know until the last moment. I asked a friend how it was supposed to work. She said that it was basically everybody’s responsibility not to get into an accident, as if that explained everything. Then she drove straight through a red light. She said it didn’t apply to bicycles. So I asked, “What if a crossing car doesn’t stop?” She said, quite unperturbed, “Then it’s his fault.” That answer was not totally satisfying to me, so I still stop at crossings and look both ways, just like my mom taught me all those years ago.

This year, though, I have made an upgrade in my transport, not a huge upgrade, but a small step in the right direction, a Honda Today 50cc scooter. It is quite similar to a scooter sold in the US as the Honda Metropolitan. I have put eleven kilometers on it so far without mishap. It was less than $1000 brand new, and even with helmet, tax, two years’ registration and insurance, license plates, etc, the whole enchilada came to only about $1300. It is reputed to get 100+mpg, which is nice in a country where gasoline runs about $5 a gallon. It is a bit of an adjustment after the bicycle, as I can no longer ride on the sidewalks or the wrong way on a one-way street, both of which are fair game for bicycle riders. I am staying off busy thoroughfares for the time being, and going blocks out of my way to avoid right turns across traffic (Japan drives on the left). My last motorcycle in the US was a Honda 700, so as you might imagine, this one feels a tad less manly, but so far it seems adequate to the job at hand, and as you can see from the picture, it is terminally cute. Oh, by the way, those two circles on my t-shirt are not the latest style fad in Japan, they are just reflections of the late afternoon sun from the rear-view mirrors.

Shell Scott in Tokyo, or Who Says You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Lurid Cover?

October 17, 2009


There is an English-language bookstore in Tokyo’s main book district, Jimbocho, that specializes in fiction of the fifties and sixties, the sort with lurid covers featuring buxom scantily-clad women and hunky musclemen in torrid embrace. I often stop by to have a look at their new offerings, if for no other reason than to ogle the cover art. As I perused the 50% discount bin in front of the store a few days back, I ran across a book entitled Always Leave ‘Em Dying, from a detective series I had not thought about in years: Richard Prather’s once-iconic novels featuring smart-alecky LA detective Shell Scott. For those not familiar with the series, Shell Scott is a larger-than-life (much larger, actually) character who can crack one liners like Kelsey Grammer, usually several times per page, without missing a beat in dispatching the bad guys or reeling in the babes. He is anything but an undercover operative (other than with the aforementioned babes); with his bristly snow-white crew cut and eyebrows, and his 6’2” of imposing military bearing, he stands out in any crowd. His favorite car is a Caddy convertible, from back in the days when a Cadillac was still a status symbol, and his lucky numbers are 36-25-35. Enormously popular in their day (some forty million books sold from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, outsold in the genre only by Mickey Spillane), Richard Prather and Shell Scott seem to have been consigned to the discount racks nowadays, victims of the passing years and the insidious creeping Political Correctness that has held the Western World in its death-grip for the past decade or more. For the Shell Scott novels are anything but politically correct: Scott is an unrepentant womanizer, a hard drinker, a hard driver, a hard fighter, and an alpha-dog of the first order. As the cover blurb notes: “He’s a guy with a pistol in his pocket and sex and violence on his mind…”

Narrated in the first person, the books offer up the protagonist’s wry (some might say hopelessly adolescent, but they would be in the PC crowd, therefore wrong) observations on women (“She wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who’d invented cleavage just for fun.” Or, how about “She smiled with plump lips, red lips, beautiful lips that undoubtedly had said yes much more often than no.”), bad guys (“He looked like a man with ten ingrown toenails.”), and his hometown (“It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles. Often you can’t find City Hall unless you are in it, but this was one of those mornings when you spring out of bed nearly overwhelmed by oxygen.”). His adventures find him, by turns, serving as an extra in a movie (he plays a rock, sort of), riding a wrecking ball in pursuit of crooks, and going “under-uncover” at a naturist colony (shortly after which he lands a hot air balloon in downtown LA…in the nude!).

Perhaps the closest living relatives to Shell Scott are his spiritual successors Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais’ hip current-day gunslinging detective duo. LA private eye Cole also drives a vintage car (a Corvette, not as imposing as a Caddy, but certainly lots faster), and cracks wise with the best of ‘em, while Pike handles the paramilitary piece, seeing off the villains with precision and finesse. They bring a modern sensibility to the action/adventure/humor continuum stirred up some five decades ago by Richard Prather and Shell Scott. Still, it would be awfully difficult to imagine either of them descending naked into downtown LA in a hot air balloon…


A heartfelt thank-you goes to my brother and childhood partner-in-crimes Thane Tierney, whose unparalleled collection of Richard Prather novels provided the subject matter for the photos. As it turned out, the cover of the book I bought in Jimbocho was too far gone for a good pic, and Thane came through in record time with pics of some of the finest Shell Scott covers.

Learning Japanese (I Think I’m Learning Japanese, I Really Think So…)

October 15, 2009

It’s a tough row to hoe when you try to add a new language to your repertoire at an advanced age (by which I mean any age over about ten). Still, if you go to live somewhere where they speak a language different from yours, it is incumbent upon you to learn several key expressions and phrases in the native tongue:
“Hello”, “My name is…”, “Nice to meet you”, “Do you come here often?”, “Do you have a boyfriend (girlfriend, dog, communicable disease)?“, “How much does that cost?”, “Excuse me, how much?”, “Seriously?”, “No, I have never eaten natto before”, “Yecch, that’s bloody awful”, “Do you have one in my size?”, “Excuse me, I believe I was in line ahead of you”, “No, I’m afraid I don’t know your friend Bob from America”, “I am feeling some pain in my duodenum, doctor; it is a shooting pain, rather than a burning or an ache; it may have something to do with the aforementioned natto”, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”, “A venti cafe mocha, half skim, half soy, with a shot of caramel and double foam”, “Pardon me, but I seem to have crashed the bicycle (rental car, airplane)”, “I’m sorry, I cannot speak… (whatever language it is that you cannot speak)”, the all-important “Do you speak English?”, and its equally critical sibling “Where is the bathroom?” )”

Needless to say, most language courses don’t cover these vital aspects of daily life, concentrating instead on instructing the student in the fundamentals of structure, after which said student can state with confidence “This is a table, this is a book, that is a red car”. The theory seems to be that you, the student, might run into a local who, though fluent in his own language, has somehow managed to go his entire life without learning what a table, a book, or a red car might be. And then you can inform him. How cool is that?

Japanese brings a whole new dimension of difficulty (their word for “difficult” is “muzukashii”, which is on the difficult side its own self) to the written communication process, in that it uses an entirely different alphabet, or rather two alphabets, plus innumerable kanji (pictogram) characters, at least a couple of thousand of which must be memorized in order to read a newspaper article or a novel. No kidding. (And get this: the Japanese dictionary is arranged not by subject, sound or spelling, but by how many lines comprise the kanji character!) After countless hours of study, I have more or less mastered the phonetic alphabets, and a good solid dozen of the two thousand-odd pictogram characters; I anticipate being fluent in the year 2412. So far, I have committed to memory the characters for: mountain, river, inside, water, several (but by no means all) numerals, field, forest, village, fireworks, fireflies, and mouth. Almost enough to compose a haiku:
“One mountain river
Waters fields, forest, village
(four as-yet unwritten syllables, blah blah blah blah, likely some fluff about fireflies or fireworks)…mouth”
Move over, Basho.

So, as a coda to all this language stuff, I was at the local Saitama post office the other day, sending a book to a friend in the States, and the cashier handed me a form (totally in Japanese, naturally) to fill out. “Nan desu ka?” (What is this?) It turned out to be a Customs form, requiring that I declare the contents of the package. And then I had the epiphany, that bright shining crescendo of unparalleled clarity and divine humor, that defining moment of transcendent international verbal communication: for perhaps the first time in recorded history outside the Japanese language classroom, somebody (yours truly, no less!) was actually going to get to say, in a completely uncontrived situation, “Kore wa hon desu” (This is a book).

Otto Penzler and the History of Mystery

October 14, 2009

Otto Penzler, editor extraordinaire, is a name well known among mystery aficionados. He was the founder of The Mysterious Press, editor of numerous collections of suspense fiction (among them the iconic Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps), and for the past thirty-one years, has been the proprietor of New York City’s The Mysterious Bookshop. Each year, Penzler commissions a short story from one of the many authors he knows (and he knows virtually everybody, it would seem). The story has three requirements: it must be a mystery, it must take place over the Christmas season, and The Mysterious Bookshop must be the scene of some of the action. This year, in a flash of brilliance, Penzler got not one writer, but twenty-two, to contribute to his holiday effort, and the result is a thick volume entitled The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. The list of contributors is, in a word, staggering: Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Lincoln Child, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Colin Dexter, John Harvey, Stephen Hunter, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, John Lescroart, Laura Lippmann, David Morrell, Carol O’Connell, Robert B. Parker, Ridley Pearson, Anne Perry, Douglas Preston, Ian Rankin, and Alexander McCall Smith. Whew!

Each of the authors takes a markedly different approach from his colleagues: Robert B. Parker stages a fictional interview featuring Spenser, his girlfriend Susan, and Susan’s friend, prospective author Amy Trent. The three chat in a Boston cafe while Amy asks probing questions about Spenser’s character. The interview, as with the Spenser stories, is told in the first person of the protagonist; the repartee is, well, Spenserian: “It’s pretty hard for me not to be cute,” I said. Susan rolled her eyes slightly. “He can learn, but he can’t be taught,” Susan said.

By contrast, Alexander McCall Smith’s essay reads like a sun-drenched memoir of idyllic days spent in developing Africa. He speaks with a genuine fondness for the denizens of Botswana, and in particular one Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” (read: chubby) heroine of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Remarkably, the book was not an easy sell. Publishers were looking for “grit” and “edge”, neither of which would be found in close proximity to Mma Ramotswe. In the end, the book was picked up by a small publishing company, and only fifteen hundred books were printed in the first run. (Can you imagine what a first edition might bring on eBay?) At a launch party thrown by a group of Smith’s friends, “nobody, including me, thought that this book would go anywhere in particular. Who would be interested in reading about the life of a woman in Botswana…?” Who indeed!

Robert Crais’ take on the assignment is exceptionally clever, a first-person dialog between the author and his wisecracking LA hero, Elvis Cole.
Cole: “You’re making more off my cases than I do. Look how many emails you get through the website, people asking how come I always work for free.”
Crais: “You don’t work for free. Peter Alan Nelsen paid you a load.”
Cole: “And how long ago was that, Lullabye Town?”
Crais: “Jonathan Greene paid you up front in Sunset Express. So did Judy Taylor in Voodoo River. Besides, I’ve only chronicled ten of your cases…”
Cole: “Chronicled. Am I being chronicled?”
Crais: “ I only cover your interesting cases. Our readers wouldn’t care about the boring dogs you work to pay the bills.”

And so it goes, for 400+ pages, in which the avid mystrophile can peruse the back stories of two-and-twenty of his/her favorite characters. Kudos to editor Penzler, and holiday wishes for another thirty-one successful years of mystery and suspense in store (The Mysterious Bookstore, that is).

The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives; Otto Penzler; Little, Brown; ISBN 9780316031936; 416pp; $25.99