****Countdown to Osaka

Osaka, lanterns, Japan

creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – Today we see more crime fiction set in Japan, Korea, and other countries of the Far East, with Western authors also probing these cultures’ perplexities. Joe Hefferon’s latest novel, Countdown to Osaka, is an exciting addition to the mix. His main characters—female yakuza assassin Koi and French illegal gun merchant Le Sauvage—are larger-than-life, but such interesting characters you gladly accept their unerring skills in martial arts and criminal strategy.

In the beginning of the story, Koi is disillusioned with life in the organized crime syndicate to which she belongs and tired of killing at its behest. She wants out. But there is no easy out of the yakuza. In a satisfying hero’s journey move, her mentor in the organization, an “aging jackal named Hayato,” gives her one last mission—kill Le Sauvage and stop his plan to steal a fortune in Japanese gold, lost since the fall of the Shoguns. No one is sure where it is, but Le Sauvage, it seems, is closing in on it.

If she fails, Hayato will kill her. Of course, Le Sauvage and his heavy guard of former French Foreign Legionnaires and special operations soldiers may beat him to it. If she succeeds, she can have her freedom. So he says. In the distance, a dogged Interpol inspector lags several steps behind the action.

Koi is a tough cookie on the outside, though another dimension of her is revealed through her devotion to her dying mother. It is her mother’s wish that she free herself from the yakuza, which adds to Koi’s determination. Koi’s mother had many struggles raising her half-European daughter as an unmarried woman. Many of the novel’s situations are influenced by the social and cultural mores of Japan. Although I am not an expert on Japanese culture, these descriptions and sometimes subtle reflections of what is and is not possible in daily behavior ring true.

Le Sauvage’s network soon realizes an “Asian woman” is after him, but she manages to outwit them for a while, including seeking refuge in the apartment of a theater-loving gay bartender in Nice, Le Sauvage’s home turf. Hefferon includes numerous comic touches in this encounter, and you may regret when it races to a close. In fact, many of the secondary characters—including members of the Frenchman’s gang and a dissolute British scholar of Asian literature—are interesting in their own right and not just in place to fill out a scene.

The treasure hunt moves back and forth from Saigon to France to Osaka, and while multi-time-zone jet-setting is sometimes not especially believable, Koi and the yakuza on one hand and Le Sauvage and his team on the other have almost unlimited funds, keeping the travel at least financially plausible.

The clues to where the Japanese gold may have been hidden are scattered, some in a quite unexpected place. Puzzle elements are a staple of mystery fiction, and the way the team puts that aspect of the story together is complicated and lost me a couple of times, but nevertheless great fun. Hefferon has deployed the tropes of crime and mystery fiction with exceeding skill here, creating characters to believe in and a crackerjack plot, but don’t be lulled into thinking you know how it will all end.

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***Médicis Daughter

The young Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet

The young Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet

By Sophie Perinot – This romantic adventure covers the strife-riven period of French history from 1564 to 1572, near the end of the Valois lineage and the rise of the Bourbons. The central character is Princess Marguerite (Margot), whose father is dead and whose brother Charles is now king of France. Only three years older than she, Charles, like everyone else in the household, is guided and ruled by their mother, Queen Catherine de Médicis (yes, those infamous Médicis of Florence).

Ignored by her mother through most of her childhood, Margot is anxious to join her court and gain her favor. When she finally does arrive at court, around age eleven, she finds it a dangerous stew of plots and jealousies, revenge and murder. An uneasy peace between the country’s Catholic majority, to which the aristocracy belongs, and the Protestant Huguenots threatens to dissolve.

Margot falls in love with the handsome young Duc de Guise, but her family is determined she have a royal marriage. She is little more than a pawn on the political chessboard of Europe, but if she refuses to play, it could cost her her life and that of the Duc. The outbreak of war with the Huguenots tosses the fate of her family and her love into the air, and it lands in a most unexpected place. By the time her family finally finds her a suitable and willing marriage partner, it’s clear that political considerations, not love, are uppermost. Age nineteen, and with a reviled husband, she displays considerable (and rather suddenly acquired) political acumen.

Marguerite de Valois is a historical character well known in France for an eventful, sometimes scandalous life, much of which takes place after this book’s conclusion. Margot matures during novel, but none of the other characters much change, despite additional years, challenges, and demands on them. They remain rather two-dimensional in Perinot’s treatment, and I would especially like to have seen more probing of the character of Queen Catherine, for example.

Authors of historical fiction often must go beyond surface events and motives to explore their characters’ actions. Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels—turned into memorable theatricals—about Thomas Cromwell are a perfect example, as is this treatment of Catherine of Aragon. Occasionally Perinot’s dialog seems too modern, but despite these quibbles (and a few startling grammatical errors—where was the editor?), it is an exciting read about a period I knew too little of. Margot was the subject of a famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, on which a 1994 French movie (La Reine Margot) was based.

The reader would have been well served if the book included a family tree of the Valois clan and their cousins who appear in this story, a list of the principal characters (having three main characters named Henri didn’t make it easy to follow, though Perinot handled this reasonably well), and perhaps a map.

The Names of Love

Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin, The Names of Love

Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin in The Names of Love

I must have watched a French comedy and put the titles of all the films previewed on my Netflix list, because they keep coming. Bienvenue! This 2010 film (trailer) from France is the latest—a pleasant farce directed by Michel Leclerc and written by him and Baya Kasmi. It won three César Awards in 2011, including for best writing.

The story is about a young woman who uses sex as a weapon to persuade conservative politicians—men whom she considers “right-wing” in general—to embrace more liberal attitudes. From this comes some satirical moments, too, touching on the impermanence of supposed firmly held beliefs and the stereotyping of ethnic and religious groups based simply on how they look or what their names are.

Half-Algerian, the young woman’s name is Baya Benmahmoud, and she says, “no one in France has that name.” But she tackles one person too many when she confronts Arthur Martin—“15,207 people in France have the same name,” he tells us—a middle-aged scientist who does necropsies on dead birds, in order to detect possible human illnesses. Why are you scaring people? she demands to know at their first confrontational meeting.

The free spirit and the buttoned-up scientist are, of course, destined to fall for each other. The filmmakers show us how the two protagonists do not escape their childhoods, and we see them as children, as children commenting on their adult selves, and the fireworks when their polar opposite families, alas, meet.

In his New York Times review, Stephen Holden says the movie “has the tone and structure of early-to-middle Woody Allen, but infused with a dose of Gallic identity politics.” Sara Forestier is charming as the irrepressible extrovert Baya (she also snagged a César), and Jacques Gamblin is a persuasive match. A fun movie when you just want to be happily entertained (note: nudity)

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 73%; audiences, 79%. RogerEbert.com gives it 3 stars.