On the beat with a cultural detective

Author Barry Lancet reveals how his years as an editor in Tokyo shaped his thriller "Japantown"

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

The recent success of Barry Lancet, first time author and resident of Japan for over 25 years, reads like a bar-stool fantasy for any wanna-be writer, and Lancet’s definitely enjoying the dream-like reality. With the TV rights optioned by Hollywood, positive reviews surging in across the globe, six countries joining the bids for translations, his mystery-thriller “Japantown” provides ample reason to celebrate. Yet Lancet modestly raises a glass to his main character, Jim Brodie.

“The idea for ‘Japantown’ started with Brodie,” Lancet says. “I had this character in my head, and I wanted him to explain the cultural side of Japan, but because it’s a novel and because you must have conflict, you can’t only focus on the highs. You need the lows for balance.”

A Californian native, Lancet deftly applies his years of living and working in Tokyo to forge a character close to home on both continents. San Francisco art dealer Jim Brodie inherits his father’s Tokyo-based, private investigation firm. A modern hard-boiled detective with a zen streak and the soft appeal of a widowed, single dad, Brodie brings the cultural side of Japan together with its shadowy underbelly. It is this fusion that Lancet believes most appeals: “Japan in general is popular because it has so many cultural elements that are still accessible. You can talk about gardens, you can talk about zen; the list is endless. But a lot of Asian countries have let their cultural elements fall by the wayside, or in the case of China, have systematically eradicated them. In Japan they are still here, and that’s the appeal. But a thriller must have some dastardly element, the black-hatters, and Japan has that as well, like any country.”

Lancet’s work as an editor for the now-defunct publisher Kodansha International (KI) provided the foundation for his insider’s perspective. Lancet developed numerous books on Japanese culture over two decades for KI, from art to Asian philosophy, from martial arts to history. He also immersed himself in the country, learning the language, throwing pots for five years at a traditional wheel, collecting art on a modest scale. “I gained a lot over the years,” he says “just talking to dozens and dozens of Japanese, asking their opinions, listening, and because I could talk to them naturally in Japanese, I could get a good handle on many aspects of culture or politics.”

Part of Lancet’s early motivation to write also came from friends back in the United States, puzzled that Lancet was making a home in the Far East. “When I first arrived in the ’80s, no matter how I tried to explain it, friends in the States did not seem to understand the appeal of Japan,” he says. “So part of my early motivation was to explain Japan as I saw it, having come to know it so closely.”

Squeezing in writing time by scribbling notes on the train during commutes, Lancet steadily worked on his manuscript. When the economic changes in the publishing world forced KI to close in 2011, Brodie and his story were already in the hands of Lancet’s first choice for an agent. Lancet then decided to give full-time writing a year before he looked for a new job; eight months later, “Japantown” sold to publishing giant, Simon and Schuster.

Dividing his time now between the U.S. and Japan, Lancet remains faithful to his editing roots. He includes an extensive Writers’ Corner on his website to help emerging writers make dream a reality.

“When I started as a young editor at KI, I didn’t know any better. In the old days, I would simply refuse a manuscript and writers would walk away disappointed,” he says. “Eventually I thought, there’s a better way than just saying no. I started to give writers guidance on other publishing companies or suggest pointers on their presentations. For all the projects I turned down, I started spending an extra half hour with the writers either by email or over the phone. A lot of those people ended up finding publishers, and that seemed like a better solution all around.”

Although Lancet acknowledges the initial success is encouraging, he remains reserved about the possibilities.

“I never considered a series. I just knew from the beginning there were a lot of topics on Japan I could write about and that I certainly couldn’t get them all in one novel. If there was interest in this, I was definitely interested in continuing. There does seem to be interest right now,” he says.

Interest indeed: Simon and Schuster has already bought rights to the second novel, and TV producer J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot is developing the characters into a television series. With future Brodie projects, Lancet promises to remain true to his “core” idea.

“Sometimes it is just a brush stroke and sometimes it’s a key element in the story, but I want to keep that cultural undercurrent strong,” he says. “Most thrillers don’t particularly want to reveal or teach something, they just have a great story that zooms along. I want to reveal layers of Japanese culture, harking back to that early question when everyone would ask me: ‘What are you really doing over there?’ ”

For more information, see www.barrylancet.com.