BookPage Whodunit Overflow: Jed Rubenfeld, The Death Instinct

April 28, 2011

Once a month, the Japanese postman trudges up the stairs to my Saitama loft to deliver a box from America. It is one of those “all you can stuff into it” patriotic red-white-and-blue international flat-rate boxes, and it contains a dozen or so of the latest mystery and suspense novels from around the world. It is like a monthly Christmas parcel for me, and I dig into each new package enthusiastically. Of the one hundred or more submissions every month, these are the twelve that Abby, my editor at BookPage, has deemed most worthy of review, and from this group, I will select four for the Whodunit column. Some will be a shoe-in: the Michael Connellys; the T. Jefferson Parkers; the Walter Moselys; the Henning Mankells. Over the course of the year, if possible, I’d like to include some impressive debut novels, a selection from lesser-known favorite authors, and perhaps a bit of exotica from some far-flung location like Iceland or Botswana.  This month, my parcel from America contained an embarrassment of riches, enough great books to fill two months’ worth of columns at least. Case in point: Jed Rubenfeld’s The Death Instinct.

Nowadays, when one thinks of terrorism and New York in the same breath, one remembers the endlessly repeated footage of jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center. What is less remembered by far is the 1920 Wall Street bombing, the most destructive act of terrorism in US history until the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Some 400 people were killed or injured, and the mystery surrounding the attack remains unsolved to this day.

In The Death Instinct, Jed Rubenfeld deftly spins a tale of treachery and intrigue, with a small group of fictional characters (a cop, a doctor, a researcher and a young mute boy) moving among and interacting with real-life luminaries of the day: President Woodrow Wilson, Marie Curie, and Sigmund Freud, to name but a few. Together and separately, this intrepid group engages in an investigation that will not only suggest culpability in the bombing, but raise compelling questions about psychoanalysis, radioactivity, and Senate-level political chicanery as well.

There are stories within stories here, set on stages ranging from Manhattan to Prague, and a soaring love affair worthy of a Celine Dion theme song.  Author Rubenfeld is well up to the task, offering readers a tautly charged narrative, appealing characters, and a couple of major surprises you will not see coming.

Jed Rubenfeld is, by any measure, a classic overachiever: according to the short bio on the back cover, he is a professor at Yale University Law School, one of the country’s foremost authorities on constitutional law, and the author of the international bestseller The Interpretation of Murder, which, not coincidentally, is the top book on my nightstand, and my next non-work-related read.

Nusa Lembongan

April 25, 2011

In the Lonely Planet guidebook to Bali and Lombok, the small island of Nusa Lembongan is described as “the Bali many imagine but never find: simple rooms on the beach, cheap beers with incredible sunsets, days spent surfing and diving, and nights spent riffling through a favourite book or hanging with new friends.” They go on to say that it is a place where “time is marked by the crow of a rooster and the fall of a coconut.” In short, just my kind of place. Saki and I went there for a few days just before her return to Japan (where she had, unbeknownst to her, an appointment with an earthquake). I still had a couple of weeks left, and faced the choice of heading eastward to Lombok or beyond, places I had not yet explored, or simply going back to Lembongan for a bit and vegging out by the beach. Those who know me well will not be surprised that the second option won the day.

Nusa Lembongan is quite different from “mainland” Bali, both in the broad strokes and in nuance. For starters, there are no cars on the island, but for a few emergency vehicles and resort minivans. Thus, the daily take-your-life-in-your-hands experience of crossing a street or piloting a motor scooter is imbued with a good deal less dread than on the mainland. Renting a scooter was by comparison quite different as well: no contracts, no signatures, no hassles. Just a ten-dollar payment for three days, and we were off and running, fuel included. The fact that the scooter would not make it up a moderate hill with two of us aboard was mildly amusing, but not a deal breaker, as there were only a few hills between us and any place we wanted to be.

I should also mention that Nusa Lembongan must be about the most affordable place on the planet. An air conditioned beachfront hotel, complete with restaurant, bar and infinity pool, ran $15 US per night. There was no hot water, but it was scarcely needed, as the water reservoir was on the roof, heated all day by the tropical sun. A huge supper of freshly caught fish steamed in banana leaves, with rice, veggies and beer, set me back about $5. In town, a bit away from the beach and its “tourist” prices, a veritable feast could be had for a couple of bucks. Endless white sand beaches, friendly locals, a volcano simmering just across the strait—a modern-day Gilligan’s Island just waiting to be discovered.

The pictures will tell the story better than mere words…

Lembongan waterfront

The high-priced hotel, $20/night

Before the cockfight

Lembongan beach from above

And again...

Lembongan back in the day (1980s)

And, as Lonely Planet pointed out, there were ample opportunities to meet new friends. This is by no means a comprehensive grouping, but I did my best with the pictures at hand:

Sasha from Sweden, en route to higher ground in advance of rumored tsunami

Sipri and baked (in several senses of the word) Bruce

Iris from Taiwan, w/fiance Phil from NZ

Meng from NZ checks out Sasha's pics

Swedish flower girls Marie and Sasha

Anna, yet another lovely Swede

Jenny (Holland), Ali & Robin (Canada), Meng (NZ) with Ketut's family

Update: May 2, 2011: Aarrggh! Is it not the pits when somebody points out that you may have made an error, an error in print no less, especially when they are right? Jenny from Holland (see above pic) quite correctly pointed out to me that Sasha and Marie (see “flower girls” pic, above) are from Denmark, not from Sweden. This, of course, makes Anna (from the next pic after Sasha and Marie) “the only lovely Swede” in this column, rather than “yet another lovely Swede”, as I had noted in the caption. I apologize to all affected parties for the error, and I have no excuse whatsoever, except to say that perhaps I was bewitched by the beauty of all concerned!

Erratum #2: “Sasha” should be spelled “Sascha”, which I just found out from Marie, whose name, by some happy accident, I actually spelled right.

Bunches of Bali Pics

April 16, 2011

Our first night's digs, Kuta

Saki surfing the concrete wave, Kuta

Tanah Lot temple, accessible only at low tide

Sunset at Tanah Lot

Monkeys everywhere...


This monkey wants a hat, even if it's not his size

Floating temple, Bedugul

Near Bedugul

Bali Botanical Garden

Shrines are almost as ubiquitous as the monkeys

Rice paddies, near Ubud

More rice paddies, Ubud

Okay, enough with the rice paddies, already

"You talkin' to me?!!!" Monkey Forest, Ubud

Roadside rest stop, Ubud

Ubud outdoor market

Rice terraces north of Ubud

Petals and leaves, floating in a bowl of water

Elephant god Ganesha, decked out for New Year's

The only non-smiling child in all Bali

Bali's finest brew

New Year celebrants, Ubud

And a few more...

Balcony view from our hotel, Ubud ($20 per night!)

View from our 2nd hotel in Ubud ($25 per night, a splurge)

Father and son percussionists, Ubud

Young fire dancers, Ubud

More to come, stay tuned…

Mysterious Orientations, Circa 1974

April 11, 2011

The state of Japanese nightly television is, let’s say, about on a par with daytime TV in the US (in other words, heinous): game shows, talk shows, infomercials, news and weather, and weepy soap operas. They are uniform in their unwatchability. Fortunately for the expat community, there are movie channels, and the English-language films tend to be subtitled rather than dubbed, so at least I don’t have to listen to Robert DeNiro go “Anata wa watakushi e hanasemasuka?,” which somehow just doesn’t feature the same charged delivery as “You talkin’ to me?” Every now and then, though, I have a hankering for some good old US television drama, something with detectives, car chases, flying bullets, and snappy dialog. These are not generally available in Japan, or if they are, they have thus far eluded me.

Then, at Christmastime last year, my brother Thane came to the rescue, and sent me DVDs of the entire two seasons of Harry O, a seventies’ drama starring David Janssen (better known for his long-running starring role as Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive). I quite liked Harry O when it was new, and after watching the pilot film, I was delighted to see that it had held up quite well despite its age (the pilot, incidentally, features a very young Jodie Foster, foreshadowing in no uncertain terms what a powerhouse of an actress she would become). The basic premise of the series is that Harry Orwell, a cop shot in the line of duty, has retired from the San Diego police force, and started a private investigation business from his beach house in Coronado. Harry O takes on cases that resonate with him in some form or fashion, and does a running narrative voiceover throughout each episode, in a world-weary yet cautiously optimistic tone. He often works for free, and it shows nowhere more strongly than in his personal transportation: a primer-grey and liberally rusty Austin Healey Sprite of indeterminate age. As is the case with Sprites in real life, it doesn’t run all that well (or all that often, for that matter), and Harry is regularly relegated to public transportation, never a good option in car-centric Southern California.

A bunch of folks recognizable even today had regular or guest roles on the show: Jim Backus (Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island), Stephanie Powers, Loni Anderson, Diana Hyland, and jazz legend Cab Calloway, among others. Anthony Zerbe and Farrah Fawcett were regulars; Fawcett played neighbor and occasional girlfriend Sue Ingram, and Zerbe won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Harry O’s friend and nemesis, Lt. Trench of the Santa Monica Police Department.

I have rationed myself to two episodes a week, which I have to watch on my American computer, as they will not play on my Japanese DVD player. Thus, I see them on a 17” screen, more or less as the original producers intended, rather than on a 32” screen, which would have seemed huge in the 1970s. I still have another six or eight months to go, unless I cheat…

PS, I had thought that the series was available only as a bootleg, but it turns out that a company called Ultra TV Shows is offering DVDs of the entire two seasons, including both pilot films “for a limited time” (whatever that may mean).

Odds and Ends From Here and There

April 8, 2011

Every so often, my collection of random crapola reaches critical mass, and I find myself in the position of having to a) organize it, or b) simply do a blog post of random crapola. Since option “b” is far the easier of the two, I offer you my most recent compilation:

Yahoo! News has offered a couple of the best headlines I have seen in recent weeks; how about this gem?

Shark Bites Cancun Tourist in Surf Despite Warning

(“Time after time you warn those damn sharks, and still every now and then one doesn’t pay attention…”)

That headline can also be seen gracing the following website, from the NBC affiliate in Youngstown, Ohio: 

Another choice example, one that requires no editorial commentary from me:

‘Gay Caveman’ Story Overblown, Archaeologists Say

Lest you question the veracity of my transcription, I offer you the original URL:

The previous two are much along the lines of a headline that appeared in the Fremont (Nebraska) Journal a couple of years back:

Red tape holds up new Platte River bridge

I suspect that the red tape held up the bridge so that it would not drop on the shark from a couple of headlines ago, but that is just a guess.

And then there were a couple of notable T-shirts, emblazoned with Words to Live By:

In case you can’t read this deep thought, it says “Live happily, time of today, the earth goes around for one self; we love honey.”

Here are a few products that likely would have gotten waylaid somewhere between the original concept and the store shelves, had they been proposed in the US:

Sweet Potato Ice Cream Oreos

Schweppes Air Soda

Don't miss the Chicken Gordon Blue

Let's hope it's very rare!

I'm told this company also makes underwear called Dr. Footy

Above, please note the latest in high-tech spy gear, the 35 mm camera disguised as a fruit juice box or a pack of cigarettes. The cigarette brand, incidentally, is Cheering Cigarettes; on the side of the package, the buyer is exhorted to “Just Relax! Let’s take a few minutes to relax and unwind. A person needs to relax and have a little fun!” Note also that the camera disguised as a box of “strawberry juice” is actually decorated with raspberries, a dead giveaway in the world of espionage (that is, if you hadn’t already noticed the “35mm camera” verbiage prominently posted on the camera body).

BookPage Overflow: Olen Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit

April 6, 2011

I started reading spy stories almost as soon as I started reading mysteries, seamlessly making the move from the chaste Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels straight to Ian Fleming’s racy (or at least racier) James Bond books. On my parents’ bookshelves could be found espionage tales by Fredrick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Donald Hamilton, Ken Follett, John Le Carre, and the like. I devoured them eagerly, and then delved into the history of the genre, adding used copies of works by Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Alistair MacLean, James Munro, and Helen MacInnes to my growing paperback library. It was a bonus that the cover art often mirrored that of mystery novels, with a voluptuously exotic spy-ette beckoning me to look inside.

Fast forward a lot of years, and you can still find me reading mysteries and spy novels in my spare time, a guilty pleasure of which I seem never to grow weary. The latest in a long string is Olen Steinhauer’s follow-up to his wildly popular The Tourist, entitled The Nearest Exit.

Milo Weaver (the aforementioned Tourist) has become something of a reluctant spy. He would prefer to be at home with his wife and child, and indeed almost made that move, before being drafted once more into the uber-hushhush world of The Department of Tourism. Since we last met up with Weaver, he has done time in prison, and been assigned administrative duty as punishment for sins not of his own doing. Now he is back in the field, but his handlers are testing his loyalty at every turn; the vetting assignments grow ever more deadly, as Weaver is tasked with the abduction and murder of a teenaged Moldovan immigrant girl in Berlin. He cannot bring himself to kill the girl, especially as he suspects that she is little more than a test of his willingness to obey orders; so he goes through with the abduction, spiriting the girl away from public view, and counting on his contacts (one of whom is his UN-exec father) to follow through to ensure the girl’s safety. By mishap or by design, however, the safekeeping assignment is bungled, and the girl’s death makes worldwide headline news. Weaver is moved quickly on to his next critical assignment, to track down rumors of a mole within the Department of Tourism, and to see if they have any credibility. Still smarting bitterly from the outcome of his last assignment, Weaver is on the verge of not giving a damn whether there is a mole, or indeed whether his organization even deserves to continue. For Weaver is, best intentions aside, becoming ever more human, in a milieu that doesn’t put much of a price on humanity.  

If there has ever been a spy novel with more shades of grey, and with fewer characters that could be counted as “good” or “bad”, I cannot think of it. To say that protagonist Weaver is morally conflicted would be understatement of the first order. He will find shreds of humanity in even the most case-hardened operative, and still not blanch at the prospect of random and intense violence. And somehow, he will have to find a way reconcile his work and his home life, a decision faced by everyone at some point or other, but rarely to the degree of a Tourist.

If you are a fan of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books, or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, The Nearest Exit should be right up your alley. It is by no means necessary, but it would be a good idea to read The Tourist first; I can guarantee that once you have read one, you will definitely want to read the other, so you might as well do it in order.

Here, by the way, is the UK cover of The Nearest Exit, which I rather prefer to its American counterpart:

Driving While Asian

April 3, 2011

A friend of mine in Southern California law enforcement confided an open cop secret to me one evening over too many beers. Apparently there is a term often used by Golden State traffic officers, “DWA”, which stands for “Driving While Asian” (as politically incorrect as this may be, it is probably an improvement over its predecessor, “OBW”, which stood for “Oriental Behind Wheel”). These do not represent a particular offense, but rather a loosely defined group of infractions such as imprecise lane discipline, ungainly merging, speeds inconsistent with surrounding traffic, and so on.

The reality of the situation, or at least one reality, is quite at odds with the American perception. As I have come to notice while driving in Bali, on narrow potholed roads with heaps of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes, there is a strange but distinct order to the traffic pattern: basically, you are responsible for the avoidance of unwanted contact with anything that lies in front of you. If you have to move over, you don’t look in the mirror, you simply count on the guy behind you to be playing by the same set of rules, which for the most part, he does. It’s weird (and when the fellow in the smoky diesel bus directly behind you gives a friendly toot on his air horn, downright scary!), at least to Western drivers, but it seems to work. And it goes a long way toward explaining the seemingly erratic driving of some of North America’s Asian immigrant population.

Driving in Bali is not unlike driving on a race course, and in that context, the drivers are world class: one drives as fast as conditions will allow (for there are no speed limits), one is constantly on the lookout for small holes in the traffic (on either side of the road) to slip into to further one’s forward progress, and one is blithely unconcerned about anything that might be in the rear view mirror (that is assuming that one’s vehicle even has a rear view mirror). There is one major departure from the world of racing, though: seatbelts and helmets are clearly for sissies or tourists.

For the novice, Balinese roads are simply chaos, but the more you watch, the more the patterns emerge. The rare lines on the road are simply suggestions, not legally binding in any way, as far as I can gather. At intersections, traffic is always in flux; at any given moment, vehicles are moving in all four directions (even on one-way streets), narrowly avoiding one another as they creep forward. If Bob Fosse had choreographed traffic, this is what it would have looked like. It would seem that brakes are rarely used; I have visions of Balinese junkyards stacked with rusted-out hulks of automobiles and motor scooters, all with shiny unused brake discs (the horns, by contrast, are all well beyond repair).

Bodies are packed like sardines into any moving conveyance, for instance, truckloads of pilgrims heading for a seaside ceremony in advance of New Year’s, or minivan taxi passengers in crowded Kuta.

My favorite part, although sometimes it made me cringe, was watching how many people could be transported by one 100cc motor scooter. Saki saw five at one point, the record for the trip. My personal best was four, although style points had to be awarded for this family: father driving; young daughter standing up in the footwell in front of him, shielded from traffic by dad’s arms on the handlebars; mother riding on the back (sidesaddle, no less!), while (get this…) breastfeeding an infant! (Sadly, you’ll have to take my word for this one, as I have no picture.)

By any measure, the Westerners on the road were seriously outnumbered and outgunned, hopelessly outclassed as drivers. I rather suspect that the Balinese police have their own “DWA” acronym, but that it stands for “Driving While American” or “Driving While Australian.”

NOTE: thanks, as always, to ace photographer, Saki Aoki.