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Summertime, and the dying is easy

by Mark Schreiber

RENDEZVOUS AT KAMAKURA INN by Marshall Browne. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005, 288 pp., $23.95 (cloth).
SAYONARA BAR by Susan Barker. London: Black Swan Books, 2006, 430 pp., £6.99 (paper).

For Detective Inspector Hideo Aoki of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, the sprinklings of misfortune have become a torrential downpour. His exhaustive efforts to indict a powerful politician have been aborted by his superiors, and his investigative team disbanded. His father dies, and soon afterward his wife hangs herself.

Ostensibly for compassionate leave, Aoki’s boss reserves him a stay at an isolated hot spring which, title notwithstanding, is in a remote part of Hokkaido. Upon arrival, Aoki finds himself in an exceedingly peculiar situation. A woman had mysteriously disappeared in Tokyo seven years ago to the day, and her husband, a corrupt banker, and her former paramour, a finance ministry official, both happen to be staying at the same inn, which by another remarkable coincidence is managed by the woman’s daughter. An unseasonable blizzard hits, telephone communications and electric power fail, and as the darkness sets in, hotel guests’ heads start rolling in quick succession. Aoki, not only out of his official jurisdiction but also minus his service revolver and badge, is forced to match wits with a melange of suspicious characters, including an enigmatic player of the board game Go.

As this contrived situation develops, Aoki encounters a series of deaths by foul play. I was reminded by turns of Agatha Christie’s 1939 classic (the subject of several film remakes) “And Then There Were None” — set on an Indian island — and D.C. denizen Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s bizarre 1996 tale “The Apprentice” (reviewed here last February).

Aoki, the long-suffering cop, ultimately prevails; but his triumph comes about neither through astute detection nor through dogged determination. Nor, for that matter, through dauntless courage. He just assumes the role of judge, jury and executioner and terminates the bad guys like a Japanese version of Dirty Harry Callahan. The wicked may indeed get their just deserts, but disappointingly, justice is not served.

Marshall Browne — one of Australia’s most accomplished mystery authors — cites Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Master of Go” as one of his sources. But his efforts to work the game into the story contribute little to the narrative. Kawabata aside, “Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn” approaches murder in Japan at a variety of levels and fails at almost all of them.

More kinks from Kansai

The garish yellow, manga-style cover of “Sayonara Bar” may repel some readers, but the story, narrated in the first person by three different characters, is quite entertaining. First there’s Mary, a British gal working as a hostess at the Sayonara Bar; Watanabe, a brilliant but delusional young man with a crush on Mary, who works as the bar’s cook; and Mr. Sato, a lonely, depressed widower and corporate drone who is reluctantly dragged to the bar by a superior.

The work somewhat resembles Mo Hayder’s “Tokyo” (reviewed here in May 2004). Both are web-work stories featuring British women in the Japanese water trade; both involve violent encounters with menacing Japanese hoods; and both convey an aura of gothic weirdness. The Hayder story, however, jumped between the present and flashbacks to Nanjing in the 1930s, and its characters were grotesque. With Susan Barker’s story, at least, two out of three characters show a semblance of normality and until things start to become unraveled, Sato’s life contains no surprises.

It was a day of satisfactory progress [Sato relates], so I did not mind when everyone began to bow out after the five o’clock company chime. The first to go was Taro, who bounded to the door like a dog who’s been cooped up indoors all day and is desperate to relieve himself in the yard. Then Matsuyama-san had to go home and look after his children while his wife taught her Tuesday evening pottery class. Miss Hatta went at six, giggling into her mobile phone to a girlfriend, and our new recruit, Miss Yamamoto, left half an hour later, with an armload of files she intended to work on at home. Such conscientiousness! I wonder if it is possible to keep her on as a replacement for Taro . . . Soon I was all alone, with only the dormant hum of the office computer for company . . . .

Sato’s office solitude is rudely interrupted by Mariko, a teenage girl who works as a part-time waitress at Sayonara Bar, and who suddenly approaches his desk with a boxed meal she had prepared for him. Although Mariko appears naive and innocent, her deceptive acts toward the grieving widower are crueler than anything the local yakuza threaten to do to the other two characters.

Chimera-like in its progression, “Sayonara Bar” metamorphoses between crime story, elements of SF fantasy and social commentary, providing an original if somewhat squalid look at the dark underside of life in Kansai.