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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Two local novelists strut their stuff


THE BANG DEVILS, by Patrick Foss. New York: HarperCollins, 2003 305 pp., $13.95 (paper).

AMBASSADOR STRIKES, by Robert J. Collins. California: McKenna Publishing Group, 2003 260 pp., $19.95 (paper). With so much rich material to draw upon, the relatively small number of English novels set in the Kansai area have tended to be quite entertaining. Along with the "Superintendent Otani" series by former British diplomat James Melville (set mainly in Kobe), can be found "Ransom," Jay MacInerney's 1985 novel about alienated members of America's post-Vietnam Lost Generation hanging out in Kyoto.

"The Bang Devils," set in Osaka, features foreign scavengers who come to feast on the carrion of postbubble Japan and who are also very much products of their times.

"Imagine going to a cocktail party every night . . . and that's your job," was the way Chicago native Jessica Romano, hostess at the Pony Tail nightclub, puts it.

Her blond, athletic "Charlie's Angels" appearance has kept her afloat in Japan's water trade for seven years, although she has little to show for it in financial terms. At 27, she's already a "Christmas cake" whose appeal, in a nation that worships the young and cute, is fading fast.

To maintain her self-esteem, Romano carries a piece of paper in her wallet that reads, "I will not, under any circumstances, sleep with a customer for money." Romano's problem begins when she breaks her own rule, agreeing to cavort with Zeniya, a wealthy company president willing to provide her with a substantial stipend for the privilege of cuddling with the life-size Barbie. After several of these sessions without remuneration, however, Romano learns via the hostess grapevine that Zeniya has deceived four other women in the same manner; she begins to plot revenge. As her partners in crime, she enlists bar worker Chris Ryan, a drug-soaked gigolo she knew back in the United States, and Taro Shimada, a half-Japanese, half-Filipino ex-con who, convinced he can never expect a fair shake in Japan, serves as driver for a team of Middle Eastern thieves that specializes in crashing trucks into buildings and looting their contents.

Ryan and Shimada take an immediate and intense dislike to each other, but agree, for a share of the spoils, to take part in Romano's caper. Following a sex session with Zeniya at Hotel Happy Cassanova, she drugs his whiskey, and the two cohorts, awaiting her summons in a neighboring room, spirit him into Shimada's van and drive off without a hitch. But when they present their ransom demand, they are chagrined to discover Zeniya was not the man he claimed to be; soon the amateur criminals' get-rich-quick scheme begins unraveling with nightmarish consequences.

In a fast-paced style reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, author Patrick Foss has produced a tersely written crime story featuring a variety of colorful sociopaths. An entertaining, noir view of postbubble Japan.

Diplomatic intrigue

Long-term Japan resident Robert J. Collins' newest novel, "Ambassador Strikes," involves the gruesome murder of Thomas G. Strikes, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, who appears to have been gunned down while dining at restaurant across the street from the embassy. Since the identification of Strikes' remains by his eccentric widow cannot be trusted, the question arises, was it really him? And if not, then who was killed, and why?

Privately hired to investigate the killing, former State Department employee Nick Conboy soon finds himself entangled in a plot with more twists than a pretzel. The action takes place mostly in the U.S., but Conboy does encounter a klutzy-cute Laurel-and-Hardy team of Japanese cops and some not-so-cute spooks determined to frame him for a murder he didn't commit. Collins' upbeat style works well with this tantalizing game of cat-and-mouse.

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


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