Veteran Tokyo editor turns his mind to crime


Special To The Japan Times

“Japan has her secrets, as you well know,” a Kyoto art dealer named Takahashi tells American Jim Brodie. “Many are open secrets. We Japanese are aware of them, are ashamed of them, and don’t speak of them often, if ever. Our embarrassing moments remain, for the most part, confined to these shores. The language barrier and our shame constitute an effective blockade.”

Tokyo Kill, by Barry Lancet.
Simon & Schuster, Fiction.

In “Tokyo Kill,” his second thriller from Simon & Schuster, Barry Lancet continues where his previous work, “Japantown,” left off, with Brodie out to ram through that formidable blockade of secrets. The plot takes Brodie and his colleagues from what was expected to be a simple bodyguard assignment to a search for precious antiques that people would kill for, while encountering untold stories about war atrocities. Along the way, Brodie is ganged up on by a trio of kendo experts capable of killing with wooden practice swords and contends with a Chinese secret society.

With the release of “Tokyo Kill” this month, and a contract for two more novels, California native Lancet seems to have made a seamless transition from book editor to author. Did he feel nervous over the so-called sophomore jinx?

“No, I was too busy,” he chuckles. “There was a lot of good buzz for ‘Japantown,’ which went into a third printing before it was launched, and a fourth printing was decided the same week of publication. That kept me occupied with talks and interviews. At the time I started writing ‘Tokyo Kill’ I was juggling everything that came my way, and there wasn’t really time to think about a ‘second-book jinx.'”

I confess to Lancet that when I had picked up ‘Japantown,’ I’d expected to see another one of those formula thrillers featuring a Western hero who waltzes into Japan, whacks the bad guys, thwarts the evil schemes of the Dragon Lady and is rewarded with the unreserved affection of an almond-eyed damsel in distress — in other words, a 21st-century version of Ian Fleming’s 1964 James Bond thriller “You Only Live Twice.”

Lancet is quick to disavow such stereotypical approaches.

“For one thing, Brodie (the book’s protagonist) was born in Japan to American parents who were both Caucasian,” he says. “He’s completely fluent in the language, making him an insider who can explain the country in terms that outsiders can understand.”

But Brodie — a single father who operates an antique dealership and is the head of a security agency — seems to be a reluctant hero at best. What is it that motivates him to keep getting involved in risky intrigues?

“Yes, Brodie gets dragged into these complex cases that are entangled in a very Japanese way,” Lancet explains. “He inherited half of Brodie Security, the firm that his American father, an ex-military policeman, built in Tokyo. He knows many of the employees, and feels responsible for them. And the outfit needs an American shachō (president) to carry on.”

Although “Tokyo Kill” is set in Japan, the historical narrative extends back to events in the former puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) and involves Chinese victims bent on extracting revenge against a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army.

“The intermingling between the Japanese and the Chinese, both culturally and politically, is a classic love-hate relationship that may never change,” Lancet observes. “The book has elements of crime and elements of cooperation and elements of co-admiration for each other’s culture. And there’s some great lost historical trivia, such as the fact that China’s wartime leader Chiang Kai-shek actually spent several years in Japan prior to the Chinese revolution of 1911.”

Our conversation then turns to the nuts and bolts of putting words on paper. Lancet describes his working habits as “organized, but not what you could call neat.”

“My work area is a flurry of activity, with books, manuscript and notes scattered all around. When I need to marshal my organizing skills, things become a little neater for a day or two, then chaos returns.”

Lancet credits his previous career as an editor at Kodansha International in Tokyo for giving him a wide range of exposure to Asian history and culture.

“Over the years I edited, acquired and developed dozens of works on art, history, Asian philosophy and other nonfiction books. I was able to meet experts in the field, go behind closed doors and delve deeply into many facets of the culture.”

He can’t say exactly how long it took him to write his first book.

“I was searching for my voice and the best way to tell the story. The first version was hardboiled, the second medium with punch, and the third and final incarnation was — and still is — a mystery-thriller with an edge. But the main thing is, I plugged away until I found a tone and an angle that met my vision.”

Although initially contracted for two books featuring Brodie, Simon & Schuster offered Lancet a contract for two more titles just before “Japantown” was published.

“I expect to wind up the third one this fall, then start on the next one,” he says.

What sort of exotic intrigues can we expect book three to tackle?

“Some of the culture and the art, as the others do,” says Lancet. “But in addition it will tackle a very current and very alarming topic. That’s all I’m saying right now.” He smiles cryptically. “I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Barry Lancet will hold a talk session and book signing today (Sept. 7, 1 p.m.) at the branch of Kinokuniya Books near Times Square Takashimaya in Shinjuku, Tokyo. For information, visit