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Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

Riveting guitar saga tugs at the heartstrings

THE RED STAR OF CADIZ by Osaka Go, translated by Usha Jayaraman. Fukuoka: Kurodahan Press, 2008, 421 pp., $20 (paper)

In the summer of 1975, Spain's 82-year-old leader Francisco Franco is fading fast. Spain's underground radical groups are determined to tarnish El Caudillo's legacy and, if possible, alter the direction of Spain's future.

While it's hardly the sort of situation in which you'd expect Japanese to get involved, this novel by prolific author Osaka Go (nom de plume of Hiromasa Naka, age 66) has deservedly won three literary prizes.

The narrative, conveyed in flashback, is told in the first person by protagonist Ryo Urushida, the savvy operator of a small public relations outfit that represents a musical instrument manufacturer. Urushida's client invites Jose Ramos, an elderly master guitar craftsman, to visit Japan, and Urushida is recruited at the request of Ramos to recover a valuable guitar, known as the "Red Star of Cadiz," that a young Japanese musician had stolen from Ramos' workshop in Spain two decades earlier.

While passably fluent in Spanish and a longtime aficionado of flamenco guitar, Urushida is a complete amateur as an investigator. He soon finds himself embroiled in an increasingly complex and dangerous situation, somewhat evocative of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

Early in the story Urushida locks horns with Risayo Nachi, a femme fatale who conducts PR for a competitor of Urushida's client. In the backdrop of corporate intrigues, the search for the missing guitar and Spanish politics, their relationship evolves from hate-hate to love-hate and ultimately to a bittersweet romance.

The Red Star provides the vehicle around which a kaleidoscope of characters, from its deceased creator to its mysterious current owner, move through a multidimensional nexus of time, space, political sentiments and even romance. Multiple characters shed their roles and identities and family relationships ravel and unravel across the decades — in a style somewhat reminiscent of the late Canadian author Ross MacDonald in his much-acclaimed Lew Archer series.

The plot is solid and the characters — including several stereotypically nasty villains — are convincingly portrayed. Accompanied by translator Usha Jayaraman, Osaka proves himself a virtuoso of the musical mystery, masterfully tweaking his readers' heartstrings. The narrative, especially the dialogue, is lively, tinged with ironic humor and flows along naturally, making "Red Star" a pleasure to read from cover to cover and earning this reviewer's five-star approval rating. Bravo!

Coming soon

This year is already shaping up as a great one for mystery fiction in Asia. In the pipeline for upcoming reviews we have, set in Heian Period Japan: "The Convict's Sword" by I.J. Parker (Penguin); in Thailand: "Paying Back Jack" by Christopher G. Moore (Heaven Lake Press); in China: "The Mao Case" by Qiu Xiaolong (St. Martin's Minotaur); in North Korea: "Bamboo & Blood" by James Church (St. Martin's Minotaur); in Mongolia: "The Shadow Walker" by Michael Walters (Berkley); and in Tokyo: "The Poison Ape" by Arimasa Osawa (Vertical).

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