With three previous novels under his belt, former Kodansha International editor Barry Lancet has made a name for himself as an author by tapping into the niche of “thrillers set in Japan.” During a recent event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) in the Yurakucho district of Central Tokyo, The Gaijin Ghost had an opportunity to meet the author, hear him speak, and obtain an Advanced Reading Copy of his latest page-turner, The Spy Across the Table, which is due out in the states one week from today.
Up till now, Lancet has dealt in book titles that conjured a sense of exotic location, whether it be a country or district (Japantown), a city (Tokyo Kill), or a region (Pacific Burn). Interestingly enough, while The Spy Across the Table breaks from this tradition to offer a slightly more generic thriller title, Lancet said during his talk at FCCJ that this was the first title of his that his publisher actually liked and did not want him to change.
What the four aforementioned books have in common is that they are part of a series of standalone adventures in the perilous P.I. career of one Jim Brodie (always referred to by his full name, or his last name, but preferably his full name). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Brodie’s exploits—at least where a travel blog like this is concerned—is the extent to which they function as a travelogue, and a primer on Japanese culture.
Incidentally, today marks the 50th anniversary of You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery’s fifth outing as James Bond (“the one where Bond goes to Japan.”) The Bond film series has long since exhausted most of its original source material; but imagine if, all through Ian Fleming’s novels, Bond had been using Tokyo as his base of operations, instead of London. And imagine if Bond were a private eye, instead of a secret agent.
That gives you a basic comparison for Jim Brodie, Lancet’s reluctant protagonist, who would prefer to focus on his antique dealings, but always seems to find himself getting drawn into danger. At FCCJ, Lancet spoke about how he endeavors, in his writing, to intermingle “the high and low.” And indeed, even in the midst of a murder scene, Brodie’s thoughts are never far from the reference points of an antiques dealer. Without letting it bog down the action too much, Lancet manages to weave in little asides on things like woodblock prints or tea bowls.
That accounts for the “high” aspects. As for the low, with Japan usually figuring in as a backdrop, Brodie’s murder investigations often bring him up alongside a variety of colorful characters, including tough-talking Chinese hoodlums, who comically snag their knives on the inside of their pockets, and gangsters named Habu (after the Okinawa snake, a deadly pit viper), who patronize gay nightclubs because it is the last place the police would look for them.
Of course, Brodie runs afoul of assassins, too. Alas, no albinos, but in some cases, there are disguises involved. In this respect, the character also somewhat mirrors Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code and other Dan Brown potboilers.
Consider how, at the beginning of Japantown, Brodie the Japan expert is brought in, almost like a symbologist, to interpret an obscure kanji character left behind as a clue at the scene of a brutal slaying. While there is nothing so elaborate as a cadaver posed like the Vitruvian Man at the Louvre in Paris (a la The Da Vinci Code), an entire family has been slain on the streets of San Francisco.
Soon Brodie is thrust into a larger web of intrigue, which leads him to a summer festival in a remote Japanese village, where he tangles with an ancient order of assassins (“They’re ninjas, just say it!” quips one Amazon reviewer.)
People who live in Japan, whether they be natives to this country or long-term foreign residents, might have a chuckle over some of the scenarios Brodie finds himself in. In the same way that a comic book movie like The Wolverine (2013) manages to work in a yakuza fight at Zojoji Temple, a chase through a pachinko parlor, and another fight atop a speeding bullet train—all in just a few short minutes of screen time—Lancet is not afraid to rebuff local snobbery in favor of famous landmarks and other bits of “Cool Japan” that tourists would consider essential.
Yet his set pieces are nothing if not memorable. Whether it be a fight aboard a water bus on the Sumida River, a fateful encounter atop the lookout deck of Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, or a crash course in the perils of pufferfish poison at a restaurant in Asakusa, the continuing saga of Jim Brodie is the stuff of airplane books, or “tray-table tomes,” as Time Magazine would call them. Perfect for an inbound flight to Japan ...
Lancet seems to be writing for more of a foreign audience, anyway. His books have yet to be translated into Japanese, and the stories do hop around to different locations, so that the action is not limited to the Land of the Rising Sun.
For its part, The Spy Across the Table begins with a chase through the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Very soon Jim Brodie finds himself scooped up in a limousine by the First Lady of the United States. Later he must deal with a Chinese master spy who goes by the mononym of Zhou (“one of the most dangerous men alive.”)
Despite its pedestrian title, this may actually be Lancet’s best book. Certainly it it is Jim Brodie’s most globe-trotting adventure. Writers often talk about raising the stakes, and by looping in the President and senior government officials, The Spy Across the Table raises the stakes about as high as they will go. There is one particularly tense standoff on the compound of the American Embassy in Tokyo—and that is before Brodie goes behind enemy lines in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and China.
Then the book takes a terrifying turn. Brodie often finds himself in life-threatening situations, yet there is a sense, through these novels, in which he has all the angles covered and is never in any real danger. It may be an unintended side effect of the first-person narration, but there are times when it almost feels like he is boasting of his own martial arts prowess and has too much confidence in ridiculous ploys, like doing gymnastics in the shadows to give the illusion of numerous silhouettes and thereby convey strength in numbers.
Fiction readers are trained to know that however impossible the odds might seem, the hero will overcome them, and live to fight another day. Be honest: who among us has not secretly wished that the aforementioned Dan Brown would just kill off Robert Langdon already? Forget the breathable liquid oxygen; just let him drown in the sensory deprivation tank.
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously got tired of writing Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill off the character in “The Final Problem.” It makes you wonder if Lancet will ever take a stab at a novel outside the Jim Brodie series. With books like The Casual Vacancy and A Painted House, even the most successful authors, like J.K. Rowling or John Grisham, have tried to write outside the main genre they were known for.
Until then, Japantown showed it, and now The Spy Across the Table has shown it again: namely, that the Brodie thrillers are at their best when their protagonist is in some out-of-the-way place, surrounded by hostile forces, and it actually seems feasible that he might not make it out of this alive.
Speaking of Japantown, the rights to that book were first optioned by J.J. Abrams, who was apparently interested in developing it for television. And considering how cinematic things have gotten in the new Golden Age of TV, it is easy to see why Hollywood would come knocking on Lancet’s door.
The Brodie books feature plenty of descriptive fight sequences, and in a way, the hero’s begrudging nature as a participant in pulpy plots also brings to mind the Lee Child character Jack Reacher. So it is probably only a matter of time before some other studio snatches up the rights.
In the meantime, if you are coming to Japan, any of the Jim Brodie thrillers might make for good reading material on the flight over. Through outlets like Audible and the iTunes Store, you also have the option of downloading audiobook versions. With Tokyo Kill and Pacific Burn, you can even listen to the voice of Scott Brick, famed audiobook narrator, deliver the stories in a deadpan style that matches the melodrama.
Japantown, Tokyo Kill, and Pacific Burn are available in paperback now, from Simon & Schuster. The Spy Across the Table is due out in hardcover on July 20th, 2017.