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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2004

Wrapping things up in time for Christmas


Tokyo bibliophiles will no doubt look back at 2004 as the year in which a revered Tokyo institution -- the Maruzen book store -- moved from its original location in Nihombashi, where it had operated since 1870, to a new home on the first through fourth floors of the OAZO Building in Marunouchi.

While the familiar old Maruzen building, where I'd browsed for reading matter for the past 40 years, will be missed, the new shop boasts a convenient location just two minutes on foot from the Marunouchi North exit of Tokyo Central Station. It is served by five major subway lines that converge on Otemachi, and it's open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

In addition to books in English -- with two rows of massive shelves housing sections on Japanese language and general reading about Japan -- Maruzen's foreign book selection on the fourth floor offers titles in French, German, Chinese and Korean. There is also a large section of children's literature.

With 13 shopping days still remaining until Christmas, this not-so-subtle preamble is intended as a gentle reminder to last-minute shoppers that a well-crafted spy story or whodunit is a sensible way to please those on your gift list. And if the intended recipient resides abroad, Amazon.com and other online book dealers can wrap and ship for you at very reasonable rates.

Darn good reads

In "Rain Storm" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95 clothbound), Barry Eisler's half-Japanese, single-malt sipping hitman-for-hire John Rain makes his third fictional appearance. This time Rain heads for Hong Kong and Macao to lock horns with a crowd of meanies from the Middle East. Rain, a loner and something of a diamond in the rough, comes across as a 007 without the Saville Row tailor or bullet-spewing sports car.

In between bone-crunching brawls with the bad guys, he encounters a beautiful female agent, and against his better judgment refrains from snapping her neck on the spot; instead they maneuver for advantage, never sure if the other is to be trusted.

Like Ian Fleming, Eisler has a gift for coming up with exotic locales, evil villains and molar-gritting violence. If he can maintain his current pace, he may very well inherit the mantle of Bond's creator. And I can hardly wait to see the film.

In Miyuki Miyabe's latest whodunit, "Shadow Family" (Kodansha International, 2,400 yen clothbound), a man is found stabbed to death at a construction site in a Tokyo suburb. When police peer into the contents of the victim's home computer, they see that he led a double life as a virtual bigamist.

As is often the case in cyberspace, the members of his virtual "family" were brought together out of loneliness and alienation. Being supremely reluctant to share their Internet fantasies with police interrogators, they make for reluctant witnesses at best.

Most of the narrative takes place inside the police station, where a team of savvy cops work to develop intimacy with the suspects, playing them off against each other in order to crack the case.

For readers who enjoy fantasy mixed with romance, Liam Hearn's now-complete trilogy of ancient Japan, "Tales of the Otori" (from Riverhead Books in the United States), may be just the thing. Takeo, an orphaned youth with near-supernatural abilities, fights his way through a fantastic Japanese civil war, starting from "Across the Nightingale Floor" (reviewed on this page in 2003) and continuing in "Grass for His Pillow" and "Brilliance of the Moon."

Nonfiction

Oral histories of foreigners who have made their home in Japan are few and far between. In "American Maverick in Japan: The Rick Roa Story," as told to Tony Teora (iUniverse, $15.95 paperback), one individual tells, in his own words, how a boy from Brooklyn, New York, wound up as a showbiz promoter in Japan.

The Vietnam war was in full swing in 1968, and Roa, employed by a civilian defense contractor, was able to hang out with the likes of Nick Zapetti, the U.S. Marine who starred in Robert Whiting's acclaimed work "Tokyo Underworld."

Another example of local color was Danny Stein, who operated Danny's Inn, a sleazy dive for hookers in the Akasaka area (erroneously introduced as being near the "New Sanno Military Hotel in Hiro-o") and which Roa admits to having briefly managed following Stein's departure from Japan.

These and other events in the book could have been quite interesting, but as Roa points out, "people reminded me that if I told my whole life story . . . I would do a disappearing act."

Roa consequently chooses to tread a fairly cautious path, and as a result, this book's anecdotes of encounters with the rich and infamous will probably leave readers wishing he had added a few more dashes of paprika to his stew.

Mysteries to watch for

Peering into my literary crystal ball, I see two upcoming historical mysteries set in Japan that promise good reading in the Year of the Rooster: Laura Joh Rowland's next installment in the Sano Ichiro saga, "The Assassin's Touch," from St. Martin's Press; and I.J. Parker's third novel in her Sugawara Akitada series, "The Dragon Scroll," from Viking/Penguin. The former is set in late 17th century, the latter in the 11th century.



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