Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Intelligent Thrills

December 6, by Martin Cruz Smith, Read by John Slattery, BBC Audiobooks America, 2002

Whenever I see the name Martin Cruz Smith in a bookstore, I am, for quite obvious parallel reasons, brought to mind of the character actor Charles Martin Smith though there is no overlap between the two save that name similarity. I mention this utterly irrelevant factoid about my psychology for the very simple reason that Martin Cruz Smith’s books are very cinematic and perhaps none so steeped in a certain bit of cinema as this particular one.

Imagine if you will, Rick Blaine from Casablanca in pre-Pearl Harbor Japan just days before the attack. Instead of Ilsa, we are given Michiko, a sort of geisha girlfriend, but one with a passion for the dramatic self-immolation. Instead of Rick’s CafĂ© Americain we have the Happy Paris (we’ll always have that, no?). Instead of letters of transit, there is the race to make it on the last flight out of Japan to Hong Kong. And instead of Major Strasser, we have psychotic samurai Colonel Ishigami who is out to slice our hero, Harry Niles (who is himself somewhat of a combination of Rick Blaine and Harry Lime). One character is even told by a sneering cynic, “You’re a sentimentalist.”

If all of that puts you off this novel, it shouldn’t. Cruz Smith plots a taut historical/political thriller better than just about anyone in the business these days, his characters are complex in the way real people are (as opposed to fictional complexity which is often just a put-on job), and the density of his eye for detail is like an Old Master painting light — it stuns with its flawless recreation of reality.

When we first meet Harry it’s in a flashback to his childhood where he “play” fought with schoolmates in Japan before falling through the door of some chorus girls’ dressing room. The son of American missionaries who are always out preaching and converting, Harry is raised by a Japanese nursemaid, educated in a Japanese school, and associates with Japanese friends. He is, in many ways, an outsider in both cultures. Throughout the book we get flashbacks to what happened that day and in the months after that which get us up to speed. He meets artists and songwriters and dancers and whores, his life completely changing from the sheltered life as son of missionary. He is baptized as “true” Japanese by a photographer, Kato, for his bravery in defending a packet of photo prints from thugs attacking Communists. The morning after he loses his virginity to a chorus girl he has had a crush on, the young pair are discovered in bed by Harry’s parents, ending this stage in his life as he’s shipped back to America.

These early life scenes where Harry is a teenager are important. Without them, not only would we understand Harry less, not that we understand him much, but the government connections he’s able to make, the favors he’s able to call in, the level of understanding he has all stem from this. It is here that he meets Ishigama for the first time, delivering a pack of pornographic prints to him from Kato. A samurai, Ishigama explains how a sword is made through repeated folding and beating, just as a soldier is formed as well, and from this we understand how Harry is not soldier minded like his friends, most of whom become officers or policemen later in life.

The story of how Harry gets back to Japan later as an adult is revealed to us rather close to the book’s conclusion during the lengthy and drawn out climactic game of cat and mouse Harry plays with Colonel Ishigami. What’s never adequately explained, a blind spot in Smith’s portrait of Harry, is how a boy, born in Japan, raised almost entirely by Japanese nurses and educated in Japanese schools, a boy with nearly constantly absent parents, is still possessed of that American individualistic spirit, that irreverence for authority, that can-do faith in his own abilities over tradition. Harry is born in Japan, rejects his parents’ beliefs, is sent back to America far too late in life for this attitude to convincingly take root, and is stateside for less than a decade. If this is the book’s only flaw, it is a relatively miniscule one, something you’d have to think considerably about to arrive at, and, as such, of little concern here.

Now a club owner with many contacts in the political realm, Harry is a bit of an operator, scamming businessmen and playing a variety of roles. His current running scam involves fudging oil tankers’ logs to trick the Japanese military into believing that a spy in the shipping industry is helping America steal Japan’s oil. Through subtle hints and suggestions, Harry hopes to convince the Japanese military that the US has a ready stockpile of oil at Pearl Harbor and to dissuade the Japanese from attacking America and drawing the country into World War Two, which at this stage is merely a European conflict. In the best con-game tradition, this plot tiptoes right up to the exact opposite result from its intended one, only a subtle miscalculation by Harry foils his tricks.

Throughout the first few chapters of the book as we move along Ishigama is merely a name, a dread recollection of Harry’s, a dark shadow on the past — and the future. Smith keeps the final confrontation between Harry and Ishigama until a good deal past half way through the book, a good tactic for building up tension while Ishigama remains ominous in absence. It also ups the ante on the dwindling time between the meeting of these two adversaries and Harry’s intended escape to Hong Kong. For us there is also the added tension between the event we know is coming, that which Harry is struggling mightily to prevent. And all the while, there is Ishigama, being glimpsed, being whispered about, being remembered.

At a little soiree held by and attended by gin-soaked British ambassadorial staff (are there any other kind?), some of Harry’s past is revealed in what is again a nod to Rick Blaine. As Rick ran guns for the Republicans in Spain, Harry tried to rescue the Chinese from the worst of Japanese atrocities in Nanking. The meeting between Harry and Ishigama, for which the colonel later hunts Harry’s head, was a bet between the two. Could Ishigama behead a certain number of Chinese in one minute. If Ishigama won Harry’d pay out cash to the soldiers around him, if Ishigama lost Harry could take away those the samurai didn’t manage to behead. Harry wins the bet and Ishigama loses major face. From that moment on, the colonel promises revenge.

As Harry races against time to shore up his unraveling plot, the military having decided to attack America, to secure his place on the flight out, and to find the right words to dump his mistress Michiko, Ishigama hunts him through Tokyo, aided by some of Harry’s old schoolmates. Little by little, Harry is stripped of every protection he thought he had, even his detective friend selling him out in the end. The conclusion that the book feels like it has been building toward from page one is completely unexpected yet once revealed remarkably obvious and natural. The book culminating in the kind of denouement only Japan could create.

Smith’s prose manages to weave details into every sentence without their feeling at all forced or heavy handed. Japan’s monasteries and shrines, the food and geisha culture, the ubiquity of pet beetles, the militaristic slogans like “victory lies in a faith in victory,” are all salted throughout the novel in perfect ratio. When it is explained how pawnshops do enormous business in December as people needed money for winter house cleaning and didn’t trust banks, there is the ring of an unearthed fact and not of this being an unnecessary snippet ladled in simply for local color. Smith’s prose is unadorned by great flights of poetry, while realizing the full sensory range of a foreign land, and reader John Slattery is married to this material in the best possible way. His accents are faint so as not to seem chop-socky nonsense, and his slow broad American voice presents the richness of Niles’s character. This easy seeming strength of writing also allows Smith to pull off what can seem like the most impossible of tasks for a male writer: he writes an erotic scene of sex without succumbing to leering peeping Tomisms, juvenile awkwardness of phrasing, or assumed clinical detachment. That revelation in itself is worth the cover price.

BBC Audiobooks America is the damnedest company in that they have no readily accessible website or catalog I can ever find online. With the BBC news site being one of the most viewed news pages on the planet, this kind of bizarre oversight is, frankly, idiotically inexplicable. Their production values are always topnotch, their books are always of the highest caliber, and yet their marketing is atrocious. One wonders if the artists themselves are running the show and not some canny MBAs. No matter. As long as they continue to produce the kind of sterling work I’ve come to expect, there are few titles or authors they won’t be able to sell to me.

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