Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: Tokyo Year Zero, David Peace

Vintage Crime, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-27650-6. 343 pages.

I read this book six months ago and have been trying to review it ever since. I had to get it behind me so, incoherent as it might be, here goes.

Tokyo Year Zero begins on the day of the Japanese surrender - "For the hour is zero; the Year Zero - Tokyo Year Zero". The naked body of a female is found and Inspector Minami is one of the detectives called in to investigate. The case falls under the military and his involvement stops there.

A year later the remains of two young women are found in a park. One is found nude. Only bones and clothing remain of the other. Since there is no obvious connection because of the length of the time the bodies have been there, Minami's team (identified as Room #2) is assigned the investigation of the skeletal remains and Room #1 gets the recent body.

The investigation gets underway against the backdrop of a city in ruins, horrible living conditions for most of the population, corruption the anonymous presence of the Victors, purges removing men from public office (including police officers), war crime trials, gangsters, and the black market. Minami is willing to sell police information to a crime boss for help. Adding to his guilt he appears to have a wartime secret of his own.

The basics of the murder investigations - interviews, establishing links, identifying victims - are similar across cultures but the way the detectives are organized is a unique difference from what we see in the west. The detective teams are organized by rooms and Minami is in Room #2. When they are assigned the case of the skeletal remains they pack the the supplies they need into trunks and relocate to the police station from which they will operate until the case is solved. A banner identifying their room as Special Investigation Headquarters is displayed and Minami tells the men "this banner remains here until the case is closed with honour or until we are forced to retreat back to HQ in disgrace." There will be no time off until the investigation in concluded.

I was prepared for David Peace's style having read the Red Riding Quartet but the experience of reading Tokyo Year Zero is still akin to an assault on the senses. This isn't a negative point it is just that the reader has to be fully engaged and committed. The layout of the words on the page, the frantic pacing, the sound and tactile sensations conveyed in the repetitive motifs of running, scratching, and hammering can leave you stunned.

Ton-ton and gari-gari are two expressions used constantly throughout the book. Tot-ton means tap,tap, the sound of hammering and is constantly echoing in Minami's head. I read ton-ton as representing the absence of harmony in Minami's life and also as the sound of Tokyo rebuilding iteslf.

Gari-gari is the sound of scratching. Minami is constantly scratching, his body infested with lice. This is a vivid and unpleasant image, so much so that I found myself scratching my head in sympathy. As with ton-ton, I looked at gari-gari as representing something deeper that a lack of hygiene. Perhaps he is trying to scrape away his guilt as a survivor or his actions in the army.

This is the first book in a trilogy. The second is titled Occupied City and is due out in August 2009. The final book is tentatively titled Tokyo Regained.

I did like this book but I would be reluctant to casually recommend it. It is slow paced and does require full attention to keep track of what is happening but it is a vivid look at post-war Japan and an interesting police procedural. I will be reading the rest of the trilogy.

I am including links to more reviews than I would normally because of the complexity of describing this book.

Blog reviews
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Ready When Your Are, C.B.
The Book Geeks
Booked Out
Complete Review

Media Reviews
The Guardian
The Independent A not so glowing review.
Audio review from NPR, Tokyo Year Zero Gets Under Readers' Skin

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: Stealing the Dragon, Tim Maleeny

Midnight Ink, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7387-0997. 365 pages.

A ship is approaching San Francisco. In the hold are illegal Chinese immigrants but one is different that the others, a young woman carrying a mysterious object. At the precise time she scales the side of the hold in a way that doesn't seem humanly possible and escapes. Soon after the ship runs aground on Alcatraz Island and the authorities find the Chinese in the hold and five dead crewman. The people will only describe the person who did it as a demon or heavenly soldier.

One of the detectives looks at the crime scene and thinks of the one person who could have pulled it off, Sally, the Japanese-American martial arts expert and unofficial partner of private detective Cape Weathers. Sally, an orphan, began to train as an assassin at age four in a Hong Kong school run by one of the triads. She broke away and was allowed to move to the U.S.

Cape doesn't believe that Sally was involved but neither can he find her. His investigation takes him deep into San Francisco's Chinatown where he is very much the outsider and hindered by suspicion and language. He has to negotiate his way among Chinese gangsters and an ambitious politician. Along the way we also learn a bit about the serious subject of human trafficking.

Capsule Opinion: Very enjoyable action thriller with interesting plot and characters and some nicely dark humor which I'm always up for. I'll be reading more in this series as well as his Sam McDougal story, Jump.

I don't often get to an indie bookstore so when I do I generally look at every title on the shelf. Such was the case when I got to Creatures 'n Crooks in Richmond, VA a couple of weeks back. I noticed this book by Tim Maleeny for two reasons. I remembered Tim from his excellent short story Prisoner of Love which was podcast on Also, there is that striking cover featuring a woman with a dragon tattoo and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a favorite of mine.

Stealing the Dragon is the first novel with former investigative reporter turned private detective, Cape Weathers. Cape is of the wise-cracking variety of PI but not a light weight. His relationship with Sally, a lesbian, is touched upon but not fully explored. The next book in the series, Beating the Babushka, takes place before Stealing the Dragon and looks like it will fill in some of that information.

The present day chapters alternate with the story of Sally's training as an assassin in Hong Kong. This would make an interesting book by itself. As a plot device, it neatly ties into the story.

With a school for assassins, amazing martial arts, and and a crime lord who seems to take after Bond villain or more likely Dr. Fu Manchu, Stealing the Dragon falls a bit outside the realistic detective type of story.

Recommended if you want a fun, well paced, darkly humorous, action thriller.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: The Various Haunts of Men, Susan Hill.

The Overlook Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1-59020-027-8. 438 pages.

Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham has transferred to Lafferton from London. Some might think it a step backwards in her career but Freya is looking to get back to basics, find herself after a disastrous marriage. She loves Lafferton, begins making friends, joins the choir. She is also a good listener and empathic while at the same time a tough and solid police officer. The loyal Detective Constable Nathan Coates thinks of her as his Sarge though she has been in Lafferton only a few weeks and backs her up in investigations.

She is on duty when the manager of a nursing home reports that an employee is missing. She and Coates investigate and find enough to be suspicious of the circumstances. Coates starts working records looking at past disappearances with similarities. Unfortunately they can't make a strong enough case for a full investigation and are told to put it aside. When more people disappear the dreaded phrase "serial killer" comes to the fore in people's minds.

The detectives try to find links among the possible victims who differ in age and sex. They also find themselves looking into the alternative medicine business in a nearby town.

I don't remember what put this book in my mind though I must have read about it on a book review blog and I'm always on the lookout for a new series. The cover tells us that this is a Simon Serrailler mystery. Hill has published other novels but this is her first crime novel.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is labeled a Simon Serrailler mystery but Serrailler is a peripheral character in the police work. In fact, there isn't a lot of police work involved and the conclusion seems almost accidental.

That said, I did enjoy the book but my enjoyment was incidental to the mystery. What Hill does well is build a picture of Lafferton and its people. At one point Freya thinks
Middle England, traditional values. Don't knock it, don't ever knock it, she thought. This is what we have come from, at bottom, this is what we are, and this is absolutely what we are, Nathan and I, are here to cherish and to protect.

This is what Hill is establishing in this story. She is creating the kind of England that Freya wants and needs. A place she can feel grounded.

We don't see much of Serrailler the police officer but we get a lot of Serrailler's relationship to his family (mother, twin sister, father) and learn how Simon is the black sheep for not going into medicine like the others. All of the characters studies, Serrailler's family, the victims, other townspeople, are written in a literary, sympathetic, and often moving style.

I haven't read other books in this series but I'm looking at The Various Haunts of Men as background to the novels that follow.

The following links give both positive and nengative reviews.

Mysteries in Paradise
Jandy's Reading Room
Shelf Love
The Guardian

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Review: Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

The first five chapters of Gone Tomorrow deliver a tautly written and suspenseful start to the thriller. Reacher is in a New York City subway car at 2am heading uptown. There are six passengers in the car but one of them, a woman wearing a winter coat in the summer, catches Reacher's eye. She exhibits the eleven behavioral indicators for a female suicide bomber developed by Israeli counterintelligence. Reacher can't figure out why a suicide bomber would be on a sparsely populated train and engages her to try and talk her down. Susan Mark isn't a bomber but clearly without hope; she shoots herself in the head six feet in front of Reacher.

In the investigation that follows, the police close the case as a suicide, agents from an unspecified government agency tell Reacher to forget it, and men representing a private security company want to talk with him about the incident. Both groups want to know what Susan said to him and if sh gave him anything. He meets her brother, a New Jersey cop, who tells Reacher that Susan worked in the Pentagon for Army human resources and her actions are totally out of character.

Reacher being Reacher he can't leave it alone and decides to find what happened. His investigation leads him to a candidate for the US Senate and a mother and daughter from Afghanistan. Reacher starts to find links to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan three decades earlier.

Child is a master of fast-paced, read-in-a-single-sitting thrillers and this is one of his best. It is best not to try any sort of analysis or you will wonder why Reacher has to needle and misdirect the authorities and why the government is represented by ham-fisted agents (NB, this isn't always the case in Reacher stories). You might also wonder why someone who has racked up the body count he has isn't a bit larger blip on the government radar.

If you have read the previous twelve Reacher stories you know you will get some explicit violence, a muted sexual encounter, detailed descriptions, and a neat wrap-up. Here we get a long paragraph describing the model of subway car on which Reacher is riding at the beginning as well as the weapons he uses. I like detail such as Child provides and didn't dismiss it as filler.

I thought Reacher's analysis of a military career based on what isn't written is nicely done. Having grown up in a military household and having spent four and a half years in the Army, I automatically look at military decorations on a soldier's Class A uniform to see what I can tell about their career. This was a neat touch. I also marvel that Child, an Englishman, can write so well about the U.S. Military (yes, he takes some liberties but I don't care).

I recommend Gone Tomorrow to anyone who enjoys a action thriller and isn't bothered by some heavy violence at points.

The Amazon link below includes an essay by Lee Child about the novel.

LA Times