San Francisco’s Japantown does not get the same amount of attention paid to it as Chinatown, its much larger, older and more colorful sister. When I lived in the city about 40 years ago, I went through the area several times but never stopped; it simply was not a destination. Barry Lancet’s debut novel, JAPANTOWN, has changed that for me; if I were in the city right now, I would drive or hop on a bus, walk down to Geary Street, and head west to retrace the places where so many events in this engrossing tale take place.
JAPANTOWN is centered on an intriguing character named Jim Brodie, an antiques dealer who, through the machinations of inheritance, is also part owner of a transcontinental investigation agency with a tiny office in Japantown and a much larger one in Tokyo. Brodie is a widower with a six-year-old daughter and a tragic past that rears its ugly head when a family of Japanese tourists is gunned down on an otherwise quiet evening on a Japantown street. Brodie is called in to consult and is shocked when a kanji --- a written Japanese character --- is found at the crime scene. The discovery reopens the most tragic moment of Brodie’s life, as the identical character was left at the scene of the fire that took the life of his beloved wife and her parents a few years previously.
"Regardless of whether it’s a stand-alone or the beginning of a series, Lancet has favored us with an extremely impressive debut that is almost sure to be short-listed for any number of awards next year. Pick it up now to see what all the excitement will be about."
Brodie becomes further involved in the current investigation when he is retained by a Japanese media magnate who was related to the executed family to locate the killers and enact a measure of revenge. Brodie makes it clear that he is not an executioner but agrees to investigate the deaths, in part because the presence of the kanji at both crime scenes seems to link them, despite the years between the two.
When the Tokyo office of his investigation firm traces the kanji to an ancient and isolated Japanese village, Brodie returns to Tokyo, where he had lived with his parents as a child. Though Brodie is an American Caucasian, he is deeply steeped in the Japanese language and culture. With a foot in each of the two worlds, he begins an investigation that gradually uncovers a shadowy organization that, over the course of hundreds of years, has slowly and quietly acquired power and wealth while stretching its influence into the highest levels of government in Tokyo and beyond. The investigation has inadvertently caused him to make an extremely powerful and apparently omnipotent enemy, who will think nothing of taking him --- and his daughter --- down.
JAPANTOWN is full of action and surprises, particularly within the last 70 pages or so, during which Brodie’s world is turned upside down and back again. There’s a bit of world beating, some history, a course in how the world works, and, at times, a great deal of violence. What more could one ask for? A love interest? Well, if you count the fact that Brodie still pines for his deceased wife, the book has that as well. To its credit, JAPANTOWN also has a definitive ending, but for some reason, I think that Brodie, among others, may be back for another spirited go-around.
Regardless of whether it’s a stand-alone or the beginning of a series, Lancet has favored us with an extremely impressive debut that is almost sure to be short-listed for any number of awards next year. Pick it up now to see what all the excitement will be about.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 20, 2013