Martin Cruz Smith has set his newest novel, DECEMBER 6, in
Japan on the eve of Pearl Harbor. He tells the story of Harry
Niles, the American son of missionaries who left him to grow up on
the streets of Tokyo. Now a 30-year-old man, Harry owns the Happy
Paris, a tearoom he transformed into a "...bar stocked with scotch
instead of sake and a red neon sign...," in Tokyo's "Azakuza"
district. The saloon is a hangout for Western journalists, a
meeting place for expatriates, and a watering hole for those on the
move through Japan.
Harry, had a tough time growing up in the "Hell's Kitchen" area of
Tokyo. Always a gaigin (a foreigner) among his schoolmates,
he was never really accepted and was the target of the samurai and
Shinto games they played. He calls himself a philosopher and says,
"My talent is speaking more Japanese than most Americans and more
English than most Japanese. Big deal."
He is neither a Westerner nor is he Japanese. But Harry is an
expert con man. He has his own business, he is part of a network of
acquaintances and loves his mistress, Michiko. His life is full,
and he is as content as anyone who lives the nightlife on the
fringes of any society.
Everyone Harry knows believes that Japan and the United States will
go to war. The only question for them in December, 1941 is when.
And although Harry thinks he has a plan to prevent an attack by the
Japanese on Americans, he also has a ticket in his pocket for the
last plane out of Tokyo. "Well, it may be petty of me," Harry
declares, "but I still want to come out of this war alive."
In alternating narratives of Harry the boy juxtaposed against Harry
the club owner, Smith paints an extraordinary picture of life in
Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and captures the essence
of that strange, exotic country on the brink of war. For the
verisimilitude of DECEMBER 6 Smith says, "I was able to visit Japan
with a guy I met who lived there during the time of the
story...[and for his research he] reads newspapers of the time and
memoirs of people who lived through the era [he is] writing
Smith lives up to his reputation for presenting readers finely
wrought suspense-thrillers. And, in DECEMBER 6, he goes over the
top. His deft interweaving of an historical abomination with the
romantic tale of a man without a country is both moving and thought
Fans and newcomers to Smith's work will not be disappointed in
this, his best novel to date.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 21, 2011