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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Political intrigue and mystery imagined in present and past


THE THIRD WORLD WAR: A Terrifying Novel of Global Conflict, by Humphrey Hawksley. London: Pan Books, 2003, 514 pp., £6.99 (paper).

THE HELL SCREEN, by I.J. Parker. New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003, 338 pp., $24.95, (cloth).

Long before Dec. 7, 1941, at least three novels -- the earliest published in 1906 -- predicted a surprise attack on Hawaii by Japanese naval forces. Indeed, whatever debates historians and anthropologists might exchange over the inevitability of war, one can hardly deny that all too often, works in the genre of future war fiction have a disturbing way of coming true.

With the vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union, Asia was expected to become increasingly unstable, and soon afterward such representative works as "The War in 2020" by Ralph Peters (1991), "Pacific Nightmare" by Simon Winchester (1992) and "Debt of Honor" by Tom Clancy (1994) made their appearance. Fortunately the peace has held; but inspired by 9/11 and subsequent events, it's hardly surprising books with doomsday scenarios continue to appear.

In his latest work, British TV journalist Humphrey Hawksley, author of the "Dragon Strike" and "Dragon Fire" -- novels that placed China at the center of conflict -- has shifted the spotlight to North Korea, which is secretly collaborating with Pakistan to confront their traditional enemies, the United States and India.

Hawksley's novel begins with a suicide terrorist attack on India's Parliament. Then an unarmed North Korean missile strikes the U.S. Air Base at Yokota (irritatingly misspelled "Yokata") near Tokyo and guerrilla attacks break out in Southeast Asia. Jim West, the American president, holds off on retaliation because the North Koreans insist the launch was accidental. West asks the leaders of Russia and China to mediate the dispute, making the mistake of wishful thinking that the two genuinely want to help, which they don't. While a newly nationalistic Japan threatens to go berserk, the evil ones in Pyongyang are readying a deadly biological agent designed to wreak havoc on the U.S. civilian population.

The narrative is centered in the halls of political power, so readers seeking the back-slapping, Top Gun-style elan and amazing technical gadgetry found in Tom Clancy novels will be disappointed. Hawksley's nightmare scenario focuses on the repercussions of wrong decisions. On the one hand, Hawksley seems to imply that using diplomacy and a "wait-and-see" approach toward determined fanatics and rogue states is futile and only postpones the inevitable. On the other, he acknowledges that war between nuclear-armed enemies is too horrible to contemplate. These contradictory positions do not give a great deal of cause for optimism.

Detection, Heian style

Both in style and substance, "The Hell Screen," I.J. Parker's second mystery set in 11th century Kyoto, immediately invites comparison with the hugely popular "Judge Dee" mysteries written in the 1950s and '60s by the late Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik. It also follows the traditional Chinese mystery pattern when protagonist Sugawara Akitada, a mid-ranked government official, is confronted with not one, but three separate crimes to solve.

Receiving word that his ill-tempered mother is dying, Akitada heads home from a remote outpost. Slowed by inclement weather, he takes lodging at a temple where he is shown a partially completed screen festooned with amazingly realistic scenes depicting the agonies of Buddhist hell. In the middle of the night he's awakened by a scream; only later he learns a woman had been murdered. The sole suspect is her husband who had been locked inside the room with the dead woman, but has no memory of what occurred the night before.

Back in Kyoto to attend to his dying mother, Akitada manages to get his brother-in-law out of a jam involving thefts of valuables from the Imperial Palace. By pure chance he also becomes involved in the temple murder investigation, which turns out to have more puzzles than just having occurred in a locked room. The unarmed Akitada also narrowly misses being horribly murdered himself by a demented suspect in yet another crime.

Along with a well-constructed narrative, Parker brings back several characters from her earlier "Rashomon Gate": Akitada's wife, Tamako; his two loyal sidekicks, the sumo-sized Genba and Tora, a feisty deserter from the military; and the hard-nosed Kobe, Kyoto's no-nonsense superintendent of police who stubbornly resists outside meddlers but who is always willing to pick Akitada's brains for solutions to complex cases.

Bolstered by strong characterization, meticulous historical research and close conformity to the conventions of the mystery genre, this work on the life and times of an amateur sleuth in the Heian era (794-1192) makes for delightful reading, and comes highly recommended.



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