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Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002


Year of the dragon

DRAGON DANCE, by Peter Tasker. Kodansha International, 2002, 272 pp., $22.95 (cloth)

After beating Tokyo's mean streets in "Silent Thunder" (1992) and "Buddha Kiss" (1997), Peter Tasker's Tokyo gumshoe Kazuo Mori finally hit his literary stride in 1999 with "Samurai Boogie" -- one of the most entertaining works of fiction set in contemporary Japan to appear for quite some time. "Boogie" was peppered with wisecracks and populated with a host of memorably eccentric characters, ranging from a Colombo-like, chronically impecunious private detective plagued by an annoying crow on his balcony, to a comically incompetent yakuza wannabe and a company president who based business decisions on the outcome of video games.

Now, in "Dragon Dance," Tasker has set his hard-boiled detective to simmer on the back burner while he whips up a potboiler novel of international intrigue.

The narrative begins in 2006, when China is in the ascendancy and Japan's malaise is ongoing. The yen has plummeted, homeless trudge Tokyo's streets, crime festers and the mainstream politicians continue to dither and vacillate.

With Japan's Mr. Averageman ready to grasp at any straw that might revive the economy and salvage wounded national pride, Tsuyoshi Nozawa, a charismatic folk singer, steps into the picture. From his perch in the upper house of the Diet, Nozawa croons tunes of undiluted ultranationalism. When the political demagoguery catches on with the public, you know there's going to be trouble -- especially when he advocates rearming Japan and abrogating the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

Nozawa proves great copy for Martine Meyer, a smart, young French journalist who reports for The Tribune's Tokyo bureau. How, she wonders, can this goofy long-haired crooner so easily sway the masses? In a typical example of Tasker's acerbic prose, the Japanese office manager at Martine's bureau provides this cross-cultural analysis: "Most Americans are dumb. Believe me -- I was married to two of the finest examples. But they're dumb in lots of different ways. When the Japanese get dumb, they all get dumb in exactly the same way."

As foretold by the book's prologue, behind-the scenes manipulation is the name of the game. The secondary plot is spun by a rogue Chinese faction somehow linked to the owner of Martine's newspaper, a temperamental Australian media baron whose strings are pulled by Jenny Leung, his young Chinese wife. (We know it's not supposed to be Rupert Murdoch, but the resemblance has got to be more than just coincidence.) Jenny supplies the story with the obligatory Asian Dragon Lady and raises the tension in a few steamy scenes, but unfortunately her role as a ruthless manipulator distracts more than it impacts.

While these sinister foreigners work at hatching their murky plot to undermine Japan, yet another force, whose identity and true motives remain concealed until the book's finale, spams Martine with cryptic e-mails that predict a variety of deadly incidents even before they occur. The story climaxes in a political assassination scenario whose abrupt twists and turns evoke memories of Richard Condon's 1959 masterpiece, "The Manchurian Candidate."

Tasker, a resident of Japan for two decades, knows Japan too well to descend into stereotypical yellow-peril shenanigans, so don't expect any ninja assassins to come leaping out from the ventilation duct. His closest brush with silliness is Shiina, a venerable antique dealer who plays an all-knowing sage able to explain what really makes Japan tick.

But since "Dragon Dance" makes no pretense to be anything more than entertainment, that's perfectly all right. Considering Asian political alignments have been largely unchanged for the past 50 years, this book will probably make readers offer up a prayer that when the agents of inevitable change do make the scene, they won't be quite this bad.

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

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