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Unconventional and unorthodox, but still fun to read

by Mark Schreiber

LAST SEEN IN SHANGHAI, by Howard Turk. Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Ltd., 1998, 286 pp., $18 (paper).
INSPECTOR MORIMOTO AND THE SUSHI CHEF, by Timothy Hemion. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, Inc., 2005, 222 pp., $25.95 (cloth).
THE TIGER’S GOLD by Donald G. Moore. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, Inc., 2005, 214 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

Breaking into the fiction market, never easy even in the best of times, is becoming increasingly difficult. Among the options for aspiring novelists are self-publishing and going with smaller, specialty publishers. Thanks to the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) system that was introduced back in 1967, and credit-card sales via the Internet, at least it’s become easier to get books distributed once they are published. The titles reviewed this month proved as easy to obtain as works from major publishers.

Reviving old Shanghai

Let’s go back to Shanghai 80 years ago. It’s May 1925 again, and American casino owner Jake Greenburg is seated in an opera box beside his lady friend Claire, her young niece, Jane, and Yang, a seedy Chinese tycoon. Shots are fired, leaving Yang and Claire’s niece dead. The police have their hands full with socialist agitators fomenting worker riots, so Jake, a rough-and-tumble veteran of the Great War, is left to track down the killer on his own. The trouble is, it seems about half the population of Shanghai is suspect in the murders.

Through Greenburg’s eyes, the reader is soon immersed in the “paradise of adventurers,” with its taipans, Russian refugees, opium dens and budding film industry. While warlords vie for power outside the boundaries of the International Settlement, the nascent Communist Party is making the rounds of the sweatshops, urging workers to strike for better conditions. Howard Turk’s descriptions of the city, the gangs and the corrupt authorities in the French Concession are right on, accurately portraying the atmosphere of the period.

I was almost expecting Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich or Anna May Wong to swagger onto the page. I last saw stories like “Last Seen” back in the 1960s, so it was great fun to peruse a competently constructed revival. Check out www.asia2000.com.hk for the publisher’s catalog and purchase information.

A kindlier, gentler mystery

This tale of Inspector Morimoto and his subordinate Miss Suzuki, fourth in Timothy Hemion’s series, brought back memories of “Go Gently, Gaijin” and other Superintendent Otani books from the 1980s written by British diplomat Peter Martin under the nom de plume of James Melville. Those were also police procedurals, also set in a regional Japanese city (Kobe) and also “cozy” in that very little friction occurred between the characters. In fact, the story under review comes across like a Japanese version of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series — which is set in Botswana.

For a book set in Okayama, Hemion’s narrative, interestingly, is al most bereft of native Japanese words. Rather than introduce a furoshiki, for example, we read “Mr. Genda spread out a large square cloth on his desktop and placed all his papers and documents in the center of it.”

I eventually managed to spot one or two Japanese words (“yukata” was one) in the book, but very few. Considering that foreign words put near-impossible demands on spell-check dictionaries and proofreaders who are often unfamiliar with them, perhaps the writer’s decision to stick mostly to English is not necessarily a bad thing.

The work is entertaining enough, and unique, in terms of English mystery fiction set in Japan, in that it contains a considerable amount of courtroom testimony. Even more rare, perhaps, it has the two main cops who figure in the story willing to give the accused the benefit of a doubt. The biggest shortcoming, from the mystery standpoint, is the lack of a murder. I do not make this remark in jest. When author S.S. Van Dyne produced “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” back in 1928, he pronounced, “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.”

Now I myself abhor violence — except when it’s fictitious — but feel moved to advise Mr. Hemion that the conventions of the formula cannot be disregarded without certain consequences.

Finding Yamashita’s Gold

American Mark Shaffer is definitely not Bruce Willis. In fact, he might have difficulty pummeling his way out of the confines of a wet paper bag. And he can’t pay a roughneck to do his bidding for him, because he’s unemployed. But he and Lana Reyes, a Filipina entertainer, nonetheless flee Japan for Manila, determined to claim the legendary treasure of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who in 1945 supposedly left behind Asia’s version of the Lost Dutchman mine.

I’ve always felt babes in the wood are better off avoiding trouble, especially when it involves violent confrontations with vicious yakuza and predatory policemen. Granted, Donald G. Moore — whose prior works have been set during various periods in Japan and Korea — knows his Asia; now he needs to work a little more on endearing himself to his readers. Come on, Moore-san: in this day and age, heroes don’t stumble, fumble and cower in the holds of ships; they kick butt.