I got the chance to meet Barry Lancet, and he’s almost as cool as his protagonist, Jim Brodie. Like Brodie, Lancet has spent his adult life in Japan. Like Brodie, he’s a specialist in Japanese arts, both fine and martial. But Lancet probably hasn’t experienced the terror that Brodie goes through in Japantown, the premier in the character’s series. (I met Lancet at ThrillerFest in July, where he was sharing his time helping not-yet-established writers navigate the publishing world.)
The Japantown in question is in San Francisco, where Brodie thinks he’s leading a quiet life repairing and selling Japanese antiques to discerning buyers. But the cold murder of a wealthy Japanese family in the heart of the city’s ‘little Tokyo’ brings Brodie trouble. First he is pulled in by a policeman friend to advise on the case, given Brodie’s knowledge of Japan. Then he’s hired by the husband and father of the deceased, a maverick tycoon who appears, to me, to be loosely based on the real-life Mayoshi Son.
Brodie’s not just an art dealer. His father had a successful but murky past in Japan, where he set up a private investigation and security practice, which is now run by a team of loyal and tough men. Brodie draws on them to help figure out who’s behind the murders – which keep piling up. And then, inevitably, Brodie and his daughter become the target of a shadowy but increasingly terrifying cabal.
Lancet is a terrific writer. He is able to draw us into the Japanese world with aplomb, never dumbing down the subject material but making it an easy and natural part of the story. And while he’s mesmerized by the exotic parts of Japanese culture – it’s magnificent material for a thriller, as I well know – he also avoids cliché or lazy assumptions. Lancet still lives in Tokyo, and he’s serving as an ambassador for the country, in his way.
He’s also good at pace. There is a sequence in the middle of the book where Brodie and his men arrive at a remote village which they sense is the cradle of the conspiracy. Lancet builds the tension with every page, and the final action scenes in which the veil is lifted are riveting.
The only letdown is at the very end, when the bad guys must finally reveal all to Brodie. This is a constant problem for crime fiction writers (and Hollywood directors): how to clarify the plot, let the bad guys gloat, and find a way for the hero to prevail. It’s necessary to a story like this, but all too often the scene feels contrived. Lancet is undone by the sheer number of reveals: three, if I counted right. It gobs up the pace, and the reader feels the intrusion of the Author pulling his levers.
Fortunately Lancet has three more Brodie books out. Japantown sets a high bar but I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy finding out how Lancet leaps it.