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Sunday, Aug. 17, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

TWO EURASIAN SURPRISES

Combining the best of two worlds


DRAGON BONES, by Lisa See. New York: Random House, 2003, 368 pages, $24.95 (cloth).

THE SAMURAI'S DAUGHTER, by Sujata Massey. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 304 pages, $24.95 (cloth).

It is no coincidence that, besides having Eurasian female authors, both of these books feature female detectives with lawyer mates. The similarities end there, as one is set in China and the other in Japan and California.

In an essay in "Half Half (Writers on Growing up Biracial + Bicultural)" Lisa See used the occasion of her grandmother's funeral to "discuss her memories of growing up in a Chinese-American family and what it means to feel Chinese when you have red hair and freckles."

Ethnic diversity, I was pleased to see, makes for a good tale. Her protagonist here is a beautiful female Chinese cop, Liu Hulan, an inspector in the Ministry of Public Security. Liu is married to American lawyer David Stark. This somewhat unlikely husband and wife team addresses any number of practical considerations -- which should appeal to readers not fully satisfied with a basic whodunit and insist that the narrative also let them peer into the private lives of crime solvers.

The couple's unhappy relationship -- things haven't been the same since they lost an infant daughter to meningitis years ago -- is, however, a distraction; moreover, the tough, dedicated and beautiful Liu is not really that convincing as a Chinese cop. What gives See's novels their real appeal are timely themes and authentic settings. Her previous work, "The Interior," dealt with the travails of Chinese women working at an American-owned toy factory.

"Dragon Bones" involves China's modernization and the cozy corruption that accompanies it, in this case related to smuggling antiquities. After preliminaries in Beijing, the story shifts to Sichuan Province, where an enormous man-made lake is to be created after completion of the Three Gorges Dam. Aside from forcing over 1 million residents from their homes -- some to as far away as the Xinjiang desert -- the lake will permanently immerse ancient sites. Archaeological teams have converged on the Bashan area for a last frantic dig. A British woman is found murdered in her room at the Panda Guest House, her naked corpse smeared with blood and both feet missing -- the second Westerner involved in the Bashan dig to die of unnatural causes. Among the suspects is Xiao Da ("Little Great One"), the mysterious leader of a banned cult known as the All-Patriotic Society.

Liu, sent to investigate, gets a lot more than she bargained for. With so many intertwined intrigues, so does the reader.

Crimes straddle the Pacific

Antiques of a slightly different sort figure in the works of Sujata Massey. Her Japanese-American character Rei Shimura has a sharp eye for scrolls, antique chests and murderers. Shimura, like her creator of mixed European and Asian ancestry, remains sufficiently distanced from Japan to serve as the "knowledgeable outsider," who hobnobs with the Roppongi expat crowd on the one hand while living a life of genteel poverty in Tokyo's blue-collar shitamachi on the other. Massey's character adopts a breezy, slightly self-deprecating tone, and now into six books, the series has settled into a sort of cozy familiarity.

The story begins in San Francisco, where Shimura's romantic interest, Scottish lawyer Hugh Glendinning, is preparing a class-action suit against a Japanese corporation that may have exploited "comfort women" in the Philippines during World War II. One of his elderly clients is fatally poisoned; shortly afterward a blind acupuncturist, a potential witness in the case, is found unconscious and in critical condition in Tokyo.

In her previous stories, Massey's formula was to stick with relatively noncontroversial topics; in "Samurai's Daughter," her attempts to stir up such heavyweight issues as the comfort women, war responsibility and Japanese ultranationalism result in some awkward stumbles. Japan's prewar industrial and financial cartels are repeatedly misspelled "zaibutsu," and the date of novelist Yukio Mishima's spectacular suicide after a bizarre coup d'etat attempt was off by seven years. The idea to work such issues into a modern mystery is not without merit, but putting the story in such a serious context deserves tighter research and proofreading.

The book's ending came as something of a surprise: Shimura is caught red-handed snooping in the hotel room of her fiance's colleague, who angrily presses charges of illegal entry. She escapes criminal prosecution but finds herself taken to Narita in handcuffs and summarily deported.

Perhaps this rude departure was intentional in more ways than one, as the protagonist's tone reflects a growing disaffection with Japan. "Just as things are going swimmingly," Shimura soliloquizes, "something changes. You lose your confidence and realize you never understood this country and its people after all . . . I hadn't meant to be so self-revealing. But . . . I couldn't figure out what was going on in the country that I'd always loved -- but didn't seem to reciprocate any more."

Unless Tokyo Immigration decides to reciprocate, Rei Shimura may have left town for good.

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


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