Tokyo Black by Andrew Warren has everything that thriller readers like. A burned ex-CIA operative hiding out in exile. High-stakes geopolitical tension. A gang of villains ready to kill anyone to bring out their plans. And most importantly, lots of action.
That isn’t to say that Tokyo Black is some hastily churned out airport novel. The opening line alone showcases Warren’s excellent prose. “The pulsing neon lights of Shinjuku made the darkness of the alley seem even more black and desolate, like the cold, empty space between stars.” We then meet up with Bobu, one of the main villains of the novel and a member of the titular Tokyo Black, a right-wing organization made up of former yakuza. Bobu is the stuff of nightmares, a scarred, hulking brute who kills without mercy.
Bobu is tasked with finding Hitomi Kusaka, the daughter of Arinori Kusaka, a prominent industrialist who’s been funding Tokyo Black. He’s a great villain, scheming to a Machiavellian degree and reminiscent Noah Cross from Chinatown in more ways than one. Determined to restore Japan to its former Imperial power, Tokyo Black plots to start a war between Japan and China over the contested Senkaku Islands.
Hitomi is also a person of interest of the CIA, and to find her, they send Rebecca Freeling to track down Thomas Caine, one of their best (former) agents with lots of contacts in Japan. He was cashiered from the agency by his former superior, Allan Bernatto, a slimy guy with ulterior motives.
Caine is steadfast, competent, and cool, but never in an irritating way. Think Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop. I had the voice of the American dub, Steve Blum, in my head when I read Caine’s dialogue. However, at the beginning of the novel, he finds himself rotting in a Thai prison, but he’s sprung soon enough. Good, because I don’t like prison settings.
Caine is soon off to Japan where he connects with former associates in the Yoshizawa Gang. The boss, Isato Yoshizawa, and his chief lieutenant, Koichi, enlist their support in Caine’s search. This leads to an enjoyable buddy dynamic between Caine and Koichi as they try and track down Hitomi at a concert, leading to a pretty intense altercation with Tokyo Black.
There are plenty of other characters, such as Mariko Murase, an officer in the Security Bureau, a sort of Japanese FBI. Her initial motives are unclear but she soon becomes a valuable ally when Koichi is indisposed. Kenji Yoshizawa, the son of Isato, is planning to oust his father as oyuban. Back in the United States, we are treated to several POV scenes with Rebecca Freeling as she tries to stay one step ahead of Bernatto, who’s gone rogue and is determined to kill her and Caine for unknown reasons.
There’s a lot of moving pieces, but they all fit neatly with fluid prose and great pacing that builds. The final battle between Caine and Bobu, while a kamikaze drone threatens world peace, is worth the read alone. The characters, setting, and plot just make the final product even sweeter. Tokyo Black is a great read and a must-have for thriller fans. It’s an indie book, and equal (if not better) to most traditionally published books today.
Andrew Warren was a big inspiration for me as a writer, so I contacted him for an interview.
1) What inspired you to write Tokyo Black?
I think most authors have a hard time describing exactly where their ideas really come from. I had tried starting a few novels in the past, but I lacked the motivation to complete them, or I just wasn’t secure enough in my writing. Then, after years of unsuccessful starts and stops with writing, I guess I had a “get busy living or get busy dying” moment, to quote Shawshank Redemption. I had some personal ups and downs, and I was working in a job I really didn’t enjoy. I decided I would use my writing as an escape.
I was suddenly really driven and passionate about it, and I wanted to get started quickly. I figured if I went with a mystery / thriller story, I could sort out some of the plot elements out as I went along. Caine just popped into my head as the perfect protagonist for that kind of story. Sort of an “anti-James Bond”, a shadowy figure who didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself into, or who he could trust. Someone scarred and left bitter by betrayal and guilt. I think I, like a lot of people, can relate to those feelings, although obviously on a much smaller scale than Caine! I named him after Michael Caine, one of my favorite actors.
2) Was there anything in earlier drafts of the novel that were dropped in the final version?
So much! I don’t even know where to start. At one point, just about every secondary character in Tokyo Black was supposed to die. In the end. I fell in love with them, and let them survive. I think the story is better for it. In Red Phoenix, I won’t say who, but a certain dead character was going to come back and turn out to be a villain… But I decided it wasn’t believable, and scrapped the idea. I work with an outline, but sometimes you just have to go where the story takes you. So many things change when I actually sit down and hammer out the manuscript, it’s hard to remember the original ideas.
3) What writers are some of your biggest inspirations?
Well, Ian Fleming first and foremost. Also Raymond Chandler, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami, Barry Eisler, Robert E. Howard… It might surprise people, but the Conan stories actually provide a lot of inspiration for Caine.
4) Devil’s Due, Tokyo Black and Red Phoenix are all set in Asia. Was there an interest in the region before that made you want to write novels taking place there, or did the ideas for these plots come independently?
I chose Japan as the setting for Tokyo Black because I had visited there in the past, and the place made a huge impression on me. I absolutely loved it… the food, the culture, everything. A good friend of mine thinks I must have been a samurai in a past life or something. Tokyo is such an amazing city, and Kyoto is probably my favorite spot on the planet.
I figured that if I was going to give myself a fighting chance of finishing a novel, I had better set it somewhere I loved writing about. Japan was that place for me. Once I made that decision, the other Far East locations, like Thailand, just kind of fell into place. But I always intended to branch out in the later books. Cold Kill’s Siberia and Fire and Forget’s Africa were on my mind from the very beginning.
5) If you were to cast Thomas Caine in a movie, who would you pick?
Man, that’s a tough one. Unlike a lot of writers, I really don’t picture actors when I write my character descriptions. And Caine especially is such an enigma, I always picture him half in shadow, his green eyes blazing in the darkness. I think maybe a young Clint Eastwood would have been great. A reader once suggested Tom Hardy, and I’m sure he’d do an amazing job as well. If your readers have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
6) What was your inspiration for Bobu and Kusuka, the villains of Tokyo Black?
Like most of Tokyo Black, Bobu came to me in a flash… I was asking myself all these questions like “OK, what is the book called… Hmmm, Tokyo Black sounds cool. OK, but what does that mean? Well, they’re a cult of ex-yakuza, and they burn off their tattoos. Once those ideas tumbled into my head, Bobu was born. I think subconsciously I was trying to take a typical “Bond” style character, like Jaws or Odd Job, and present a more realistic version. Kind of like what The Dark Knight did with the Joker. I named him Bobu, because I thought it was even scarier to give this monster of a man a plain, boring name… the Japanese equivalent of “Bob.”
Kusaka, on the other hand, is partly a product of my research… right-wing nationalism is certainly something that exists in Japan. But like Caine, he’s a man with a tragic past. And he’s convinced that his pain somehow makes the atrocities he’s planned morally justifiable… A hubris that a lot of my villains seem to have in common. Kusaka is a cherubic, happy looking man on the outside… But he’s driven by an irrational hate that has been festering in his soul for decades.
7) Tokyo Black involves a yakuza crime family, of which you go into great detail about their traditions, customs, and lifestyle. What did you do for research? Also, have you watched/read any movies or books featuring the yakuza? If so, do you have any recommendations?
This was the aspect of the story I struggled with the most. I really wanted to be respectful of Japanese culture and tradition. But I also wanted to tell a dramatic, action-packed story. The truth is, yakuza or no, Japan is a very safe place by Western standards. There are probably more murders in the storyline of Tokyo Black than Japan sees in a decade or more!
But in the end, I took inspiration from, of all things, a video game. I became a huge fan of Sega’s Yakuza game series, and they really go over the top with the Shakespearean drama. Those games are made in Japan, for a Japanese audience. So I figured my take on the yakuza wouldn’t offend anyone. If any of my readers want to play a game that puts you in the middle of an action-packed yakuza soap opera, I recommend taking a look at that series.
Another source of inspiration, and a movie I highly recommend, is Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film, The Yakuza. It really dives into the yakuza traditions and roots, and the Japanese relationship with honor and family. Robert Mitchum is incredible in it…His performance definitely influenced Caine a bit. And Takakura Ken is a bonafide movie star… I’ll watch anything that guy is in! It’s more of a crime drama than an action movie, but it still holds up in my opinion.
8) A big part of Tokyo Black is the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Do you stay up to date with current events for new ideas?
I think the politics of it all are really just a MacGuffin… Something that motivates and pushes the characters to interact with the story. I did my research of course, but for me the Caine books are really about coming to terms with the past, following a code, and dealing with personal tragedy. Caine is a good man who has done some very bad things… he must to choose to seek atonement, and pull himself out of the shadows. It’s only when he faces his past, and chooses to help Hitomi, that he becomes what I could consider a hero (or perhaps an anti-hero, since he may be forever tainted by the bloodshed in his past.) Those are the elements of the story that interest me the most.
9) Was there any particular reason why you chose to self-publish your work?
I’ve worked in the entertainment business for years. I’ve written for TV shows, optioned ideas of may own, polished scripts, etc. One thing about that business is, there are LOTS of gatekeepers. Agents, producers, financiers…I have no problem working with people, but I really wanted to do something creative where success or failure was on my own terms. Of course I hoped people would enjoy it, but I was fine putting out a book, and having people dislike or criticize it. What really scared me was getting stuck in “development hell”. Constantly waiting on notes, submitting to different publishers, re-writing to make other people happy, etc… The whole time, wondering if the project would ever see the light of day. I knew that would just suck the wind out of my sails, so I just put it out myself. I figured if it flopped, I’d prefer to find out sooner rather than later. Luckily, it didn’t flop!