It was love at first site. The image of a running man, superimposed over the Golden Gate Bridge, his head slightly turned to look behind him for danger. With a cover like that, I knew I was going to like Japantown by Barry Lancet. Anyone who knows me knows I love thrillers, and stories set in Japan and San Francisco. Imagine my joy when I learned this book is all three.
The main character is Jim Brodie, an art dealer but also the heir to Brodie Security, founded by his father while living in Japan. Interested more in art than in the security business, Brodie runs an antique shop in San Francisco while still remains nominal head of the security office in Tokyo. What are his rents are for such prime real estate?
The novel starts off with the main character, Jim Brodie, receiving a call from the San Francisco Police Department, requesting his presence in Japantown (the neighborhood, not the book). Given that he was raised in Japan and has an extensive knowledge of the culture and language, Brodie serves as a consultant to the SFPD regarding Japanese matters. An entire Japanese family is found brutally murdered in their apartment, baffling the Police. But a piece of paper is found at the crime scene containing a kanji character, which holds unsettling memories for Brodie.
Years ago, his Japanese wife and inlaws were found dead in an electrical fire, leaving him to raise their daughter, Jenny, alone. Although judged to be an accident, Brodie noticed a strange kanji character on also placed at that scene and now becomes convinced it was intentional. Whoever killed this family also must have been involved with his wife’s death.
Brodie is soon approached by a relative of the murdered Japanese, a prominent business magnate. He hires Brodie to locate whoever did this so that proper punishment can be meted out. Brodie accepts the offers, albeit with some reservations. The businessman is a rather shady character.
Up until this point, the novel is told in first-person so it’s a little jarring when we cut to third-person when a European businessman murdered while swimming in the ocean. That being said, you get used to the sudden cuts between first and third person pretty quickly. I am not a fan of first-person narratives, especially in thrillers, since I like to know what the bad guys and other characters are up to. They work best in noirs and mysteries, where the reader is kept in the dark just as much as the protagonist. Even there, I prefer a third-person perspective.
It works in Japantown since the third-person is usually reserved for the main villain, Ogi. Strangely enough, he’s one of my favorite characters in the novel. He’s a little over-the-top but hey, he’s memorable. He’s the heir to a vast criminal enterprise, Soga. Basically, they’re modern-day ninjas, selling their assassination services to the highest bidders. The European businessman, the family in Japantown, Brodie’s wife and in-laws were all murdered by Soga. But that doesn’t explain exactly who hired them in the first place…
Soga is a formidable foe. Operating since the feudal era, they even have a hidden village used to train new recruits. Brodie and his team infiltrate with the head detective of Brodie Security, Kunio Noda.
Apart from Ogi, I liked Noda a lot. He has the energy of a “vigilant pit bull” and speaks in clipped tones. A real, no-nonsense tough guy. Not particularly deep but the kind of guy you want to have your back in a fight.
After surviving their trip to the Soga village, the stakes are raised even further. Soga’s menace is conveyed very ominously, especially when Brodie listens to a recording of a Soga turncoat being interviewed by a Japanese government official, who warns that the organization is practically unstoppable.
Making matters worse for Brodie is that Ogi learns of his daughter who is guarded by a few paltry beat cops. The third act is set up for a climactic confrontation between Brodie and Ogi and a new secret Soga base, operating inside the United States.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes out with a bang. Think of You Only Live Twice but no volcanoes. Japantown moves at a brisk pace and is very cinematic. I had camera angles and shots all planned out in my head while reading it. Apparently, the sequel Tokyo Kill, has a lengthy flashback to World War II Japan, so I guess Barry Lancet will be getting more of my money soon.
Barry Lancet Interview
1) What inspired you to write the book?
I wanted to do two things. Tell a great story and shine some light on a world—and a different way of thinking—most people never run across. The good, the bad, and the valuable. I focused on the stuff two and three layers down people suspect is there but can never uncover on their own during a short stay in Japan. Some of it is applicable to Asia in general, and other parts to our own lives.
2) Since a large portion of the book takes place in Japan, and Japanese culture is a crucial part of the story, was it a hard sell to an agent/publisher?
When I finally got the story to the place I wanted it to be, things moved fast. Robert Gottlieb and the people at Trident Media Agency fell in love with JAPANTOWN and Jim Brodie immediately. I was thrilled and surprised at how quickly they responded. With publishers, it was a matter of finding an editor on the same wavelength. That happened pretty quickly too.
3) One of my favorite characters was Ogi, which isn’t surprising since I love villains. Was there any specific inspiration for him?
Ogi is loosely based on two people I had the displeasure of working with at different times. Those who could see through them almost universally considered them to be evil. What was most striking about each of them was how charming they could be. They could fool you in the beginning, but if you paid attention, alarm bells started to go off.
4) This novel seems very cinematic and I was wondering if Hollywood has expressed any interest?
A contract for a TV show with a major production company that has a worldwide reach is with my agent, and in the final stages before signing. I can’t give out the names yet but the arrangement is nearly complete.
5) Are you interested in Japanese art and antiques or was the decision to make Brodie an antique specialist in service to the story?
Both. The best pieces say a lot about the culture and the collective sensibilities of the people built up over centuries. It’s a mindset we can still see today. It is there in, say, the decor of a sushi shop, the meticulous detail of some of Japan’s finest products, and a “casual” flower arrangement that is anything but casual.
By giving Brodie knowledge of those things as well as what’s down some of the darker alleys, he can take readers to some amazing places.
6) While I personally don’t like having little kids in thriller novels, I found Jenny to be cute and a well-rounded character. Did you always intend for Brodie to be a single dad or was Jenny created in service of the plot?
Jenny was added in one of the last drafts to round out some of Brodie’s rough edges. He was too hardboiled in the earlier versions. Jenny makes him a dash more human. Let’s call it medium-boiled, with child.
7) Similarly, Brodie’s wife’s murder ties into the overall plot. Did you always intend for Brodie to be a widower or was this detail added in later drafts?
That’s a good question. She came along in one of the later drafts but before the daughter. What I really like about her is that she is a strong female presence in the book, even if it is from beyond the grave. And in an unexpected way she all but saves Brodie in his darkest hour.
8) I love the political intrigue that the novel deals with. Are you interested in Japanese politics and, if so, is that why you incorporated it into the plot?
I am interested in how power is accumulated and used, and how it differs from country to country. And I’m also fascinated with how it corrupts or is used for good. There is also a lot of middle ground, too. You can see a range in JAPANTOWN.
9) There are other Jim Brodie novels, which I definitely plan on reading. Tell me, will there be future Jim Brodie novels? What are you currently working on right now?
A fifth Brodie novel is in the works, and the first Brodie short story, “Three-Star Sushi,” is the lead in the latest issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. At nine thousand words and thirty pages, it’s a hefty outing for a short piece. I am also working on a standalone set in the U.S.