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Mark Schreiber: Best books of 2009

Arimasa Osawa’s hard-boiled tale follows police and gangsters in a race to track down a Taiwanese super-assassin who has been leaving bodies all over Shinjuku. This, the second in the “Shinjuku Shark” saga to appear in English, was originally published as “Dokuzaru” in 1991, when the bubble economy had yet to fully collapse, and when fears of foreign gangs running rampant were tangible. Osawa’s fictitious portrayal of the Kabukicho entertainment zone as a lawless “foreign enclave” inspired a whole new genre of hard-boiled fiction, like Seishu Hase’s “Sleepless Town,” which appeared five years later and was made into a blockbuster film. One of Japan’s most prolific authors, Osawa recently concluded a three-year stint as chairman of the Japan Detective Writers’ Association.

THE POISON APE: A Shinjuku Shark Novel, by Arimasa Osawa. Translated by Deborah Iwabuchi. Vertical, 320 pp., $15.95 (paper)

YOU GOTTA HAVE WA, by Robert Whiting. Vintage, 416 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Ever since “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat” (1977), Robert Whiting’s witty perspectives on Japanese baseball have provided a new twist on a famous George Bernard Shaw quip, casting America and Japan as “two nations separated by a common sport.” Twenty years since the initial publication of “You Gotta Have Wa,” Vintage has re-issued Whiting’s landmark 1989 work with a revised introduction and updated content. The insights in the original have stood up well to the evolution of pro baseball on both sides of the Pacific. The updates highlight the ongoing tug of war between Japanese baseball traditionalists and Americans like Bobby Valentine and Trey Hillman, who have tried to bring U.S.-style management techniques to pro baseball here. “Wa” is a fascinating study in grass-roots Japan-U.S. relations through the perspective of professional sport.

Meanwhile, in 2010 I’m looking forward to new whodunits by Martin Limon (set in South Korea), John Burdett (Thailand and Nepal), Colin Cotterill (Laos) and James Church (North Korea).

Mark Schreiber is a passionate collector of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia, and invites interested readers to visit www.steamyeast.com for more information on this topic.