Books / Reviews

Indonesia intrigue, Tokyo high-tech high jinx

by Mark Schreiber

While such enduring bad guys as Nazis, KGB agents, Cosa Nostra gangsters, sinister Asiatics and the occasional vampire still receive top billing in U.S. popular fiction and cinema, the events of 9/11 have not surprisingly inspired a stream of works featuring villains of Middle Eastern and/or jihadist persuasion.

THE MALACCA CONSPIRACY, by Don Brown. Zondervan, 2010, 352 pp., $14.99 (paper)
AT THE SHARPE END, by Hugh Ashton. j-views, 2010, 408 pp., $15.99 (paper)

“The Malacca Conspiracy” stands out as one of the most disturbing examples yet to appear.

The fifth of Don Brown’s “Navy Justice” series reads like an unintentional parody of the Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove,” with Indonesian Army General Suparman Perkasa replacing Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper.

The first sign that something nasty is afoot takes place when a trader working the graveyard shift in New York’s commodities exchanges notices a sequence of irregular buy orders on the oil spot market. Within hours, jihadists launch seaborne suicide assaults against oil supertankers, effectively closing off the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia — the vital route through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply is transported — and realizing a multibillion dollar windfall for the speculators.

After arranging to assassinate his country’s president, General Perkasa proclaims himself head of the “Islamic Republic of Indonesia” and then sets out to bring the United States to its knees using several suitcase nuclear devices that terrorists smuggled in from Mexico.

With help from a terrified young Indonesian Christian and the Vatican, the U.S. homes in on its tormentor, and dispatches a team of Navy SEALS to Jakarta. They’re accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Zack Brewer, a military attorney who resembles David James Elliott, lead character in the “JAG” TV series, on steroids.

On its website, Michigan-based publisher Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins) states its mission as “To be the leader in Christian communications meeting the needs of people with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles.”

If this book is any example, however, a more honest description would read: “To generate revenues for its principals through exploitative publications that pander to apprehensions toward other faiths.”

Sharpe cookie

In “At the Sharpe End,” Japan-based author Hugh Ashton appears to have drawn inspiration from the late director Alfred Hitchcock whose films, like “Rear Window” and “Strangers on a Train,” often involved unwitting bystanders ensnared in frightening predicaments.

The book’s British protagonist, a consultant-cum-technical writer named Kenneth Sharpe, is approached in a Tokyo coffee shop by Masashi Katsuyama, an American-educated electronics engineer who heads a high-tech company. Katsuyama offers to pay Sharpe to publicize his breakthrough in face-recognition software, a technology in which certain foreign intelligence and security services hold great interest.

Unfortunately later the same day, Katsuyama is found dead with Sharpe’s business card in his pocket. Sharpe is literally left holding the bag, containing a mysterious computer circuit board and CD. The Japanese police want to know about Sharpe’s relationship with the deceased; the representatives of several foreign governments are convinced Sharpe knows more.

Refusing to be intimidated even after his home in Chiba is ransacked, Sharpe enlists his neighbors, an Indian couple who happen to be whizzes at computer programming and finance, to figure out why Katsuyama’s invention is worth killing for.

To his credit, Ashton has turned out a credible story set in Japan that doesn’t attempt to rehash “You Only Live Twice.” He eschews the obligatory mixed bathing scene, violent altercations with sumo wrestlers and ninja armed with fugu poison. So don’t expect gunshots in Ginza, swordplay in Shimbashi or mayhem in Meguro. Kenneth Sharpe’s inadvertent adventure may not be quite as harrowing as a Hitchcock plot, but it provided a few chills to take the edge off this summer’s oppressive heat.