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Sunday, Sept. 15, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

The science of fiction: telling history as it was, and as it wasn't


DECEMBER 6, by Martin Cruz Smith (published in Britain as TOKYO STATION). Simon & Schuster: New York, 2002, 352 pp., $26 (cloth)

THE MASTER OF RAIN, by Tom Bradby. Doubleday: New York, 2002, 452 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Try to imagine, for a moment, if Rick Blaine, the hardened expat cafe owner portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," were to be transplanted to Tokyo on the eve of World War II. In place of Bogey and his alcoholic mistress Madeleine LeBeau are American Harry Niles and a hard-nosed Japanese babe named Michiko. Czech freedom fighter Paul Henreid, on the run from the Nazis, is nowhere to be found, but Niles buys freedom for five Chinese by winning a bet with a rabid Japanese officer who was on the verge of decapitating them.

A shrewd fixer who is fluent in Japanese and able to work both sides of the street, Niles operates through chameleonlike tactics, having grown up as son of a Christian missionary on the rough-and-tumble streets of Asakusa, his survival skills honed by being regularly pounded senseless by Japanese playmates. As he plies his trade among diplomats, militarists, spies, industrialists and journalists, his cynical, hard outer shell conceals the same decent and principled interior that was Bogart's stock in trade in "Casablanca."

Oh yes, the plot. "December 6" is one of those stories where something that the reader knows has happened -- the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- is tested against a hypothesis of something that may or may not have happened. Which in this case is how the attackers were tricked into failing to destroy the U.S. Navy oil facilities on Oahu -- an immense strategic failure on Japan's part, as wiping the facilities out would have set back the Americans a great deal more than sinking battleships in 11 meters of water.

This novel's approach, by the way, is not particularly original: In 1993, Sports Illustrated editor Frank Deford published "Love and Infamy," about an American missionary who became entangled in similar intrigues on the eve of Pearl Harbor and failed to get out the warning until it was too late.

While the world slowly drifts toward war, Niles must evade pursuit by his be^te noir, a nationalistic army officer named Ishigami who used his sword to decapitate 100 Chinese during the Rape of Nanjing. Nile's intervention to save the lives of five Chinese causes Ishigami to lose face. Ishigami finally tracks down the despised gaijin in Tokyo, and a violent clash appears imminent. To warm up, he unsheathes his sword and whacks the Christian Science Monitor's bureau chief. Then, incredibly, he and Niles retire to the vestibule for a few cups of hot sake.

The tension mounts as Ishigami begins oiling his sword, as if in preparation for his next victim. At this moment, egged on by Michiko, the killer is inspired to recite haiku:

"They call this flower white peony
Yes, but
A little red."

He then questions Niles: "Is there poetry in America?"
"It's different."
"Such as?"

"His face was smooth
And cool as ice
And oh Louise
He smelled
So nice
Burma-Shave."

This smarmy, show-the-bad-guys-how-irreverent-we-are formula is straight out of Indiana Jones. And author Smith's American readers are sure to revel in such stereotyped characterizations.

Smith, an accomplished best-selling novelist who has enjoyed previous literary success with Russian and Gypsy detectives, certainly has the skills to produce an action-packed spy thriller set in prewar Japan. All he really seems to prove, though, is that six decades on, Bogart clones and archetypal Japanese bad guys of the 1940s are as marketable as ever.

In "The Master of Rain," we find the situation completely reversed. Author Tom Bradby lacks Smith's storytelling savvy, and his protagonist, a rookie Shanghai cop from England named Richard Field, has few traits likely endear him to readers. Wearing his Yorkshire woolens in the sweltering heat, Field drips buckets of perspiration until Caprisi, a fellow cop from Chicago, takes pity and buys him a lightweight suit. Which promptly gets bullet-nicked and shredded as Field, having little knowledge of police procedure and even less common sense, manages to land himself in repeated close shaves with death.

The year is 1926. China is ruled by warlords, and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek are still confined to their enclave in Guangdong Province, preparing for their Northern Expedition that would culminate in the bloody suppression of Shanghai's leftists a year later.

In addition to traders and missionaries, the International Settlement of Shanghai was full of expats trying to get away from something. Central to the plot are members of the large community of White Russian emigres who found themselves on the losing side in the Bolshevik revolution.

While investigating the stabbing murder of a Russian woman, Field begins to suspect a serial killer is at work. Unfortunately the trail leads to the separately administered French Concession, where gangsters, including the Chinese employer of the deceased Russian woman, run rampant.

Field's murder investigation is also thwarted by the fact that no one seems to care. Certainly not the Settlement's corruption-ridden police force, composed mostly of Brits and Americans; not the Chinese gangs, who treat Russian females as mere commodities; and not even other Russians, whose gloomy nihilism and seeming indifference to their own stateless fate is repeated ad nauseum.

While carefully researched, Bradby's book does exhibit a few annoying flaws. The names of the Russian women take the masculine form (rendered as Orlov rather than Orlova, for example). The book could have benefited from better characterization of Chinese, who made up most of the city's population. (Japanese were also present in Shanghai in large numbers, but are nowhere to be seen in this story.)

The narrative fails to achieve the suspense of a conventional mystery, since the serial killer's other crimes all took place in the past. In addition to having too many red herrings, it also leaves a few too many loose ends. For instance, the public beheading of a Chinese doorman at the apartment where the Russian woman's murder takes place is never satisfactorily explained. Most unforgivable, however, is having the hero prevail over his enemies by running away. As with Gary Cooper in "High Noon," if you're right, you make a stand. This may reflect the author's sentiment that Asia can't be changed, but it denies the reader the catharsis of seeing justice done, which is why we read fiction in the first place.

Fortunately, Bradby did his homework and researched the International Settlement of Shanghai, which in the 1920s was one of the most exotic spots on the planet. If "The Master of Rain" disappoints, it's because the author failed to adhere to the conventions of the mystery genre. These shortcomings aside, it's still a more satisfying literary effort than the other work in this review.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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