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Amateur sleuths pursue callous California killers

by Mark Schreiber

In “You Only Live Twice” (1964), the 12th in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels, a perplexed Tiger Tanaka, MI5′s Japanese secret police liaison, informs 007 he was unaware that ninjas still existed.

JAPANTOWN, by Barry Lancet. Simon and Schuster, 2013, 416 pp., $25 (hardcover)
STRAWBERRY YELLOW, by Naomi Hirahara. Prospect Park Books, 2013, 239 pp., $15 (paperback)

By 1980, when fantasy author Eric Van Lustbader published “The Ninja,” these medieval men in black had revived to the point that they had crossed the Pacific and begun to wreak havoc in New York City. Lustbader was convinced that if sex and violence sell books, kinky sex and even kinkier violence — in Lower Manhattan no less — should propel his novel to The New York Times best-seller list. (He was right.)

But as I’ve said before, with technologies like fingerprinting and biometrics at airports, it’s become increasingly difficult for secret agents, yes, even ninjas, to travel incognito. Today’s thriller writers must meet the challenge of creating realistic characters in credible situations.

So I’ve got to hand it to Barry Lancet. A resident of Japan for over 20 years and previously a book editor at Kodansha International, Lancet has come up with a formula that delivers excitement and intrigue without insulting readers’ intelligence or straining their credulity.

In “Japantown” (whose title reminded me of film director Roman Polanski’s noir masterpiece “Chinatown”), antiques dealer Jim Brodie is called in to assist the San Francisco police after the murder of a family of five in the city’s old Japanese neighborhood. Although unable to decipher a cryptic kanji clue left behind by the killer, Brodie is not without resources: he happens not only to be fluent in Japanese, but is also the son of a man who founded one of Tokyo’s top private investigation firms.

Traveling to Tokyo in search of answers, Brodie soon realizes he is up against some ruthless people who don’t take kindly to nosy foreign visitors. His harrowing incursion into the suspected villains’ lair in the remote Soga Valley is so well crafted the remainder of the book is almost anticlimactic.

Is the 21st century ready for multinational ninja MBAs who hack computer networks instead of flinging poisoned darts, and who surgically take out business rivals instead of whacking feudal lords? More important, does Jim Brodie have the brains and fortitude to save his young daughter and himself from these cold-blooded modern-day predators? Read “Japantown” and you’ll find out.

Naomi Hirahara has created one of mystery fiction’s most unusual amateur detectives. Masao “Mas” Arai is a kibei, one of the thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry who found themselves stuck in Japan during the war. Compounding his misfortune, on Aug. 6, 1945, Arai became a hibakusha at Hiroshima.

In “Strawberry Yellow,” fifth in Hirahara’s series, the elderly Arai travels from his home in Los Angeles to Watsonville, California, for the funeral of his cousin Shigeo “Shug” Arai and finds himself entangled in a long-running feud between the families that operate the area’s strawberry agribusiness.

Alternating the present with flashbacks, the author fills in Mas Arai’s early years following his return from Japan.

“Sometimes when I think about my dad and mom and all they lost during the war, this anger comes … out of nowhere,” a then-young Shug Arai confided to his cousin. “And sometimes, I hate to say it, I get mad at them. … Not that they could have done anything. … It’s just that I don’t know what to do with the anger.”

Mas’ dogged investigation into the murder of a young woman is successful in uncovering the killer, but not without first reopening several old wounds, including some of his own. Weaving together horticulture, ethnic history and crime detection, Hirahara once again serves up a compelling saga of the Japanese-American experience.

Mark Schreiber is a fanatical collector and reader of mystery and thriller fiction set in Asia.