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Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Gumshoes who pass in the night


THE RED EARTH OF ALABAMA, by Michiro Naito. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2005, 188 pp., $23.95 (cloth).

KINKI LULLABY, by Issac Adamson. New York: Dark Alley, 2004, 358 pp., $13.95, (paper).

Even in this age of political correctness, it's proving difficult for popular fiction to wean itself from stereotypes. Do these sound familiar? Caucasians in the rural U.S. South drive pickup trucks, shoot off guns and harbor a deep suspicion, bordering on hostility, toward non-"WASP" outsiders.

Whether there's much truth to these is beside the point; the image they project has made for great mystery fiction. I refer in particular to John Ball's 1965 whodunit "In the Heat of the Night," about a murder in a small Mississippi town that forces a redneck sheriff and a black detective from Philadelphia to put aside their differences and track down the killer. An outstanding work in its own right, director Norman Jewison's 1967 screen adaptation of Ball's work also conveyed a powerful message just as America's civil rights movement was coming to a head.

Four decades later, the denizens of Dixie are much more open and tolerant, right? Try telling that to Koji Suda of "The Red Earth of Alabama," an English-speaking Tokyo private eye who is hired by Miho Suzuki to hunt for her husband, who has gone missing from his electronics firm while making preparations to set up operations in rural Alabama.

Since Suda is not licensed as a private investigator in the United States, he assumes the guise of the missing man's brother-in-law, and begins questioning the man's coworkers in Moeling, the small town where Zatech is readying its new plant. No one has a clue to Suzuki's disappearance, and the small local police force doesn't seem very keen on pursuing the matter either -- except for Vicky Royce, an attractive young policewoman with a flame-red 5.0-liter Mustang convertible and a healthy libido.

A detective from Asia seducing a cute lady cop in the Deep South might sound improbable, despite the numerous potboiler novels set in Japan in which these roles, and the races, are reversed. The sex is not merely gratuitous: Author Michiro Naito conveys the nervousness that a member of a minority can feel when romance strays across racial lines. But to his credit, Naito does not dwell overly on interracial attitudes; he also alludes to the extraordinary friendliness and hospitality of which people in the U.S. South are indeed capable.

Naito readily admitted to this reviewer that the 1967 Jewison film served as an inspiration for his book. Reading "The Red Earth of Alabama" made me reflect on how much America, and the world, have changed in the past 38 years.

Chaka in Osaka

I must plead mea culpa to the cardinal sin of judging a book by its cover. Like the covers on Issac Adamson's predecessors, "Tokyo Sucker Punch" and "Hokkaido Popsicle," "Kinki Lullaby" is festooned with garish artwork, and I was forced to overcome a certain initial distaste to purchase and read it. I'm certainly glad I did: The book hums with lively prose that, title aside, won't put readers to sleep.

Protagonist Billy Chaka, a reporter for an obscure youth magazine, is attending a convention at an Osaka hotel when a local American English teacher is found murdered in the adjacent room, with Chaka's name tag in his possession.

The victim, we learn, was married to a Japanese woman from an influential, but somewhat sordid, Kansai family. After being moved to another room, Chaka undergoes a bizarre round of questioning by the house detective. He then proceeds to investigate the crime on his own, encountering foreign English teachers, members of the nation's largest underworld syndicate, and other exotic Osaka species along the way.

In a parallel narrative, Chaka tries to mend a conflict between a master of the traditional Bunraku puppet theater and a strong-willed young disciple who rejects the old ways and is bent on modernizing. Chaka's soliloquies, conveyed in the first person, adopt a breezy style full of irreverent observations. Take his impressions following a visit to the Matsushita IMP Building, whose designers had created a "restrooms of the world" theme.

"Bathrooms on each floor were modeled on authentic restrooms from thirteen different countries, right down to the types of urinal cakes used," Adamson writes. "So far I'd only had time to visit France. C'est la vie."

Another entertaining excerpt takes a poke at the mass media.

Reading the Japanese dailies gave me the feeling I was caught in a recurring nightmare. New politicians starring in old scandals, more banks embroiled in the bad-loans imbroglio. Homelessness on the rise, violent crime on the rise, violent crimes against the homeless on the rise . . . I wondered why they bothered writing new stories at all -- seemed like it would've been easier just to reprint random editions from the last ten or fifteen years.

Once past its punk cover, "Kinki Lullaby" is not a bad read at all. Adamson's Web site www.billychaka.com is also worth a visit, although the most amusing part -- an apparently spurious letter from U.S. President George W. Bush praising the latest book -- seems to have been removed. .

C'est la vie


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