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Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Current events frame detective plots


MOGHUL BUFFET by Cheryl Benard. New York: Soho Crime, 1998, 264 pp., $12 (paper).
THE TYPHOON LOVER by Sujata Massey. New York: HarperCollins, 2005, 306 pp., $23.95 (cloth).

"I like Pakistan," writes Cheryl Benard. "I want to say that right at the outset, to avoid any misunderstandings. Its cities are distinctive and alluring. . . . I like what the British left behind: a widespread command of good English, a dry sense of humor, and, as their final gift, the uppityness that comes of having rousted them."

That said, Benard goes on to note that "to be shot, decapitated, stabbed, or otherwise meet a hideous fate, is commonplace in Peshawar." This city, she writes, nonetheless "holds its own peculiar fascination."

Detective Iqbal has been sent from the capital to investigate the disappearance of American businessman Mickey Malone. The antithesis of the loudmouthed "Ugly American," Malone was dispatched by his firm to meet a customer in Peshawar on Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. He checks in to the Khyber Inter-Continental, where kissing scenes have been expunged from the movies on the TV and a sign at the bar entrance reads "For non-Muslim foreign passport holders only."

So utterly intimidated is Malone by the culture shock that he refuses to step outside his room, even for meals. Then he inexplicably goes missing, and the only clue seems to be a woman in a green chador (veil) seen fleeing the scene. Foul play is suspected, and when several other men are found with their throats slashed, Iqbal thinks he recognizes the signs of a serial killer at work.

Benard presents a rich cast of characters, including Walid Khan, a powerful but seedy local businessman; a Bollywood actor named Babu Subramaniam; Afghan refugees; and a holy man known as the Maulana, who, unable to resist the kind of pleasures of the flesh he so forcefully condemns in his sermons, finds that any young maidservant sent to work at his household becomes, in his eyes, a seductress. For Fatima, the innocent 16-year-old maidservant brought into Maulana's house, the worst kind of sexual slavery awaits.

Serious and humorous by turns, "Moghul Buffet" is not so much about a clash between East and West, or even between traditional and modern values, but rather about the various ways in which the powerful oppress the weak. It also demonstrates how injustices, even those on a seemingly insignificant scale, can have much wider repercussions.

Although issued in 1998, the book is still in print. Its author showed some remarkable foresight in anticipating the clash between civilizations that has become aggravated since the start of the new century. It is unusual, moreover, for a novel of crime and detection to also boast such richly crafted prose, and hence today's review.

Soft-boiled detective

Three books ago, Sujata Massey's detective series' character, Japanese-American antique maven Rei Shimura, was deported from Japan, and it was beginning to look as if she might never make it back.

Author Massey has been away from Japan for a while herself, and while absence may have made her heart grow fonder, the last two mysteries, set in the United States, didn't have quite the same appeal as the earlier books in the series.

In "The Typhoon Lover," Massey salvages her original formula by having the U.S. State Department recruit Shimura as a spook-for-hire to assist in the search for a priceless artifact looted from Iraq's national museum after the U.S. incursion in 2003, and which is believed to have wound up in Japan.

Shimura was recruited because her former flame Takeo, the scion of the famous Kayama school of flower arrangement, is suspected of involvement in the disappearance of the artifact. But Takeo now has a fiancee, through a politically arranged marriage, and Shimura finds herself the odd woman out.

Shimura, who relates the story through the first person, is clearly unhappy about having reached age 30, even more so when addressed by a younger person as "Obasan" (aunty). Her advanced age notwithstanding, she is in good enough shape for an early morning jog from Roppongi Hills all the way to the Tsukiji fish market -- the reading of which alone was enough to fatigue this reviewer -- where she breakfasts on cheap sushi.

On a hunch that the artifact is being kept at Takeo's villa on the Miura Peninsula, and because a major typhoon is bearing down on the coast, Shimura sets out to have a look-see at a time Takeo is least likely to be there. After a harrowing, waterlogged journey she arrives, only to find that Takeo went to his villa to ride out the storm. The two spend the night in each other's arms, an act that appears to prompt the suicide of Takeo's young fiancee. The subsequent chain of events puts Shimura back on the trail, and after trips to Kyushu and Izu she gets her man.

An entertaining read, with probably the most complex plot of Sujata Massey's works to date.



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