Barry Lancet’s debut thriller is a very impressive work that avoids most of the pitfalls of first-time novelists. This, no doubt, is due to Lancet’s former position as editor for a large international publishing house. So while JAPANTOWN suffers slightly from a drawn-out pace, it is mostly assured, effective, and introduces a protagonist that could easily become the star of a new series.
Jim Brodie, a San Francisco-based art and antique dealer whose specialty is works from ancient Japan, receives a phone call one night from a friend at the SFPD. An entire family has been brutally gunned down in the Japantown section of the city. With his many years of knowledge and insight into Japanese culture, Brodie often serves as the police department’s go-to guy when a crime is committed in Japantown. But neither Brodie nor the police investigators have seen anything as shocking as this.
Then Brodie notices something at the crime scene. It is a kanji, that is, a Japanese character letter whose meaning is taken from its construction elements. Brodie has seen this particular kanji before – it was found at the scene of the house fire that killed his wife not too many years ago.
Shortly after the murders are discovered Brodie is approached by a wealthy and successful Japanese businessman. The businessman was related by blood to the murdered family, so he hires the Brodie Security Firm – a security and investigation company started in Japan by Brodie’s father, and co-owned by Brodie himself – to find the killers.
But as Brodie and the investigators of the Security Firm in Tokyo follow the meaning of the mysterious kanji, they discover a secret, highly trained and efficient organization of stealth killers with roots hundreds of years deep in Japanese history. Before long Brodie, his fellow investigators, and Brodie’s young daughter become targets of this ultra-secret, seemingly inescapable group of killers.
Lancet works best at demonstrating how the legends and history of Japan’s past influences encounters of the present day. This not only lends credibility to the story but also explains what may seem like odd behavior to westerners and envelops the narrative with an eerie sense of danger as the dead hand of the past grabs hold of those who live in today’s world.
Ironically, this same characteristic results in the novel’s overly-long middle section. The esoteric uniqueness of the kanji, and the reluctance of the Japanese to reveal long-held secrets is why it seems to take forever for Brodie to discover who is responsible for the murders and why they have committed such conscienceless crimes.
Fortunately these long sections of investigation are interspersed with flashes of unexpected and often violent action. These moments keep out attention sharp while heightening the suspense and underscoring the secret killer’s skills at staying one step ahead of Brodie.
Similarly, in the quieter moments, Lancet drenches Brodie’s first-person narration with a effective sense of dread and foreboding that comes close to suffocating him. The supporting characters, including the Japanese investigators of Brodie’s Tokyo-based office, are all equally credible and believable. The one small exception is Brodie’s young daughter who at times comes off a little too precious to be real.
Based on the notable strengths of this debut, it’s a sure bet that most thriller fans would more than happily follow Lancet’s Jim Brodie through another case steeped in the fascinating history and culture of Japan.
So welcome aboard, Mr. Lancet and Mr. Brodie. —Alan Cranis