****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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*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.

A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.

The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”

Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)

Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.

The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike.  This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).

But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.