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Cop on the steppes, cults in the subways

by Mark Schreiber

THE MONGOLIA CONNECTION, by Scott Christiansen. Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Ltd., 2003, 406 pp., $18 (paper).
THE SONG OF SARIN, by Stew Magnuson. Xlibris Corp., 2003, 430 pp., $24.99 (paper).

One of the tried-and-true techniques used in police procedural mysteries — but even more often in so-called “buddy cop” movies — is the teaming up of two policemen with antithetical personalities or backgrounds. Take any two human ethnic or social groups, no matter how diverse, and sooner or later a scriptwriter will strap them into the seats of a patrol car and send them out to pursue villains.

The literary origins of these mismatched crime solvers probably extend back to Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson. By the mid-1930s, Dashiel Hammett’s “Thin Man” husband-and-wife team gave women a role in crime solving. In 1965, American author John Ball added racial minorities to the equation with “In the Heat of the Night,” in which a black detective from Philadelphia, detained as a suspect while passing through a small Mississippi town, joins forces with a hostile redneck sheriff to investigate a murder. Ball’s book was made into the 1967 Academy Award-winning film starring Sydney Poitier and Rod Steiger. One year later, the “fish out of water” formula was further refined in the Clint Eastwood thriller “Coogan’s Bluff,” in which an Arizona deputy sheriff tracks his prey in New York City.

The ongoing evolution toward increasingly unlikely combinations shows no signs of abating. So when a radical libertine group in “The Mongolian Connection” initiates a series of gruesome politically motivated murders in Boston, it shouldn’t be surprising that two of the men involved in the investigation happen to be Thomas Yoder, an aging, overweight veteran detective of Amish background and Sharaa Batbileg, a half-Russian unemployed cop from the steppes of Mongolia.

How does this extraordinary situation come about? Citing reasons of “national security” to stave off further inquiry, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force intelligence service pressures the Boston Police department to dispatch someone to Mongolia to find Batbileg and bring him to the United States. Tom Yoder, who is mercilessly intimidated by his chief and undergoing marital problems to boot, is saddled with the task. Thanks to “Voice of America” broadcasts, Batbileg is able to speak a strange variety of English, and once he recovers from airsickness his finely honed hunting skills from the steppes serve him well in pursuing murderers in exotic “Bah-stin.”

Author Scott Christiansen spent five years in Mongolia working for a development agency, and his descriptions of the isolated land and its hardy people earn high points for authenticity. That said, “The Mongolian Connection” is more interesting for its portrayals of Mongolia and its people than as a police procedural — but it still definitely stands out as one of a kind.

No place like Aum

One spring morning en route to her office in Omotesando, Tokyo, 29-year-old American Tamara Duffy spots her Japanese ex-boyfriend and follows him onto the Chiyoda subway line. This becomes a mistake; the date is Monday, March 20, 1995, and Tamara’s friend is no longer the Junichi Habaki she knew, but “Siha,” a cultist whose assignment is to release toxic nerve gas on the subway. In reality, that morning 11 died and thousands were affected — many permanently disabled.

The lethal behavior of the Aum Supreme Truth has been covered by several works of nonfiction, most notably the Kaplan/Marshall “The Cult at the End of the World.” Now, thanks to Stew Magnuson, we have a fictional account as well.

Beside the strange fictional relationship between Tamara and her cultist boyfriend, the book addresses something that has yet to be fully publicized: How much did the Japanese police know about Aum, and what dissuaded them from taking action against the cult before it could paralyze the transit system with sarin? Was it inertia, incompetence, laziness or stupidity?

To provide an answer, the narrative works through the mind of Tokyo police detective Shin Nomura, who is referred to by colleagues as “Mr. Supreme Truth” for his single-minded pursuit of the cult. Unfortunately Nomura’s superior, chief Adachi, a man of typical bureaucratic mold, is not given to such rash actions as ordering the arrest of criminals. Not surprisingly, the two detest one another:

You stupid, incompetent fool, Nomura thought as he gave the police chief a long, hard stare. For five years he had been arguing for the immediate arrest of Shoko Asahara and his murderous followers. They had broken every conceivable law in Japan, including the release of sarin gas in the summer of 1994 in Matsumoto, but the police had done nothing. And Adachi was the chief of “doing nothing.”

While a bit melodramatic, those who recall the events of 1995 may find “The Song of Sarin” interesting in the way Magnuson creatively intersperses known details of the Aum case with the actions of his fictitious figures.