By E. A. Aymar
I almost missed the deadline for this article and it’s all Barry Lancet’s damn fault. I got so absorbed in his second thriller, TOKYO KILL, that I ended up reading it slower than I usually do, savoring each line, observing how expertly and subtly the plot twists and complications were built. Those who are familiar with Lancet’s JAPANTOWN, which was a Barry Award finalist for Best First Novel and optioned for television by J. J. Abrams and Warner Bros., will be excited to catch up with Jim Brodie’s newest adventure, which takes place largely in Japan and pays homage to that country’s beautiful and mysterious customs and society.
These customs are introduced to the reader both through Brodie’s interactions and personal knowledge, as well as through his side career as an art collector. The two cases he’s been involved with have both involved relics related to Japan’s past, and the country’s history is revealed to the reader as Brodie begins to unravel the mysteries behind the homicides that end up on his doorstep.
In addition to his writing, Barry Lancet has worked in publishing. He resides in Tokyo, and was gracious enough to answer some questions about his work (the Russian spy story is especially fascinating):
Your debut novel JAPANTOWN won four “best” book citations, is a finalist for a Barry Award, and has been optioned for TV by J. J. Abrams. Do you feel any pressure for the next installment in the series?
No, I’ve been too busy. JAPANTOWN reprinted three times before publication, and a fourth was scheduled the week the book came out. All the interest generated a lot of interviews and talks so, ironically, I had no time to think about the second- or third-book jitters when it came time to write them. I just jumped right into stories. I already had several threads for the books in mind, and so it was a smooth transition.
TOKYO KILL begins with a Japanese proverb, The reverse side also has a reverse side. What does that mean to the story?
The quote is true of the Jim Brodie books and life in Japan in general. Think of it in terms of a coin. You look at a coin, and you think, “Okay, the coin’s on heads.” Something happens and the coin is now on the reverse side, tails. But then something else happens, the coin’s face changes again, but it is neither heads nor tails. It’s something else entirely. Does the coin have three sides? What’s going on?
A lot of Japan is like that—and not just for expats like myself. For the Japanese as well. For any given incident the reason can be different, but there are easily a half dozen reasons why this happens over and over again in Japan. To figure it out (when it can be figured out) takes a keen eye and intuition. That’s one of the cultural fascinations, and in TOKYO KILL the unfolding events do the same. Every time things are flipped, you see a new side.
TOKYO KILL involves wartime atrocities and lost treasure—what inspired the tale?
Two chance encounters with old Japanese World War Two veterans, one after the other, led to that portion of the book. Both men were in their eighties. Both served in China. And both had regrets about some of the things they were forced to do.
Decades later, when China opened its doors, they went back to the areas they knew. They had friends and acquaintances there. In the case of the first man I met, he was shocked at the poverty he saw even as lifestyles in the cities began to rise. He made numerous trips, bringing food and money and items to make life easier, such as electric rice cookers. I was impressed with his effort. And his example stayed with me.
Then I ran into this obscure tea bowl in a dark corner of a back room in the lobby of a Kyoto hotel. It was real, and it connected the emperor of Japan with the “last emperor” of China. Yes, the last emperor. I couldn’t believe it. It was a great historical object from the war years, with a stunning secret meaning I reveal in the book.
Your protagonist, antiques-dealer-turned-PI Jim Brodie, has been compared to other iconic leading men, like Jack Reacher or Mitch Rapp. What is it that you think makes readers connect so much with him?
Brodie is tough in his own unique way, sees the world differently, and doesn’t buck anyone trying to take advantage of others. He has a code. Because of his upbringing, the components of his worldview are different, but at the core they are same. They are universal. Brodie moves forward with his life in the best way he knows. He is determined, observant, a problem solver, and a fighter if he has to be.
American Brodie inherited a PI firm based in Japan from his father and has gone into the business reluctantly. Why does he stay?
What he really wants is to focus on his art shop and his daughter, especially with his wife gone. He’s a widower. But he inherited half of the Tokyo firm, a business built up by his father after his army MP and cop gigs. Brodie hung around the office as a teenager and knows many of the employees, learned a number of trade secrets, and likes the people there. He feels a kinship to them. When he inherits half of what his father left behind, he feels responsible for them since Brodie Security, as it’s called, is their livelihood and relies on an American president to distinguish itself from the pack. By default, Jim Brodie has reluctantly become the head of this sort of adopted family, and also a reluctant, second-generation PI.
Critics of JAPANTOWN praised not only your writing and the riveting international plot, but also the relationship Brodie had with his young daughter. Six-year-old Jenny returns in TOKYO KILL and is thrust into the action. Do you see her becoming an even larger part of the series as she gets older and the series evolves?
She was a pivotal part of the JAPANTOWN story, but I wasn’t sure how she would fit in in later books. But I should have known better. Just like any real-life six-year-old kid, she’s made a place for herself, demands attention, and is growing and changing and causing her own brand of mischief.
One of the characters in TOKYO KILL, Rie Hoshino, is a female cop making her way on a police force that has a long ways to go when it comes to equality of the sexes. What inspired the character?
Good question. A lot of my Japanese friends and former coworkers are women. They work hard and are smart. But despite that there is a very firm pink ceiling in place, and they all have to deal with it in one way or the other. Some struggle against it. Some give in. Others are more creative. Rie is smart, ambitious, and trying to make a name for herself in the boy’s club that is the Tokyo PD. It’s tough territory to conquer but she’s working on it in her own inimitable way.
You mention, in the closing notes of the book, a chance meeting with a Russian spy. Can you elaborate on that?
I was at a wedding party for some Japanese friends. They had rented out a whole restaurant on the edge of Ginza for the party, but the owner had asked if one regular customer could sit at a corner table, away from the festivities. Naturally my friends said yes, and naturally, seeing the guy alone over there, they asked me, as the only person at their party who could speak English, to go over and make him feel welcome.
By the time I wandered over, he’d had a guest who’d been sitting with him for about forty minutes. The guest was a mid-level Japanese bureaucrat who had sucked down all the free drinks the Russian offered and was out of it, and babbling. I said I’d only come by to pass on greetings, and the Russian said come back in about ten minutes, after the bureaucrat left.
I didn’t want to but now I was stuck, so I did. Immediately he had drinks brought, we toasted, and drank, and he kept the drinks coming. In a very socially acceptable way, he began to ask questions about my job and my living situation. He knew I was American of course, just as I knew he was Russian. It was Tokyo, where you meet all types. His questions kept coming. I’d answer them, then ask about him, in the usual manner. He’d answer without actually offering much and redirect the conversation in my direction. This kept happening.
I don’t usually give up so much information about myself on a first meeting, but he was gently insistent and eventually pulled out all of my professional qualifications. He’d hoped I had a high position in a big American company, but when he found out I wasn’t he next began to wonder about my connections in Japan, which were pretty good. It was all very skillfully done, and I hadn’t paid attention at first, because I thought it all harmless. Slowly, I began to get a bad feeling about him and finally realized what the guy was up to.
It was around that time I noticed he seemed to have the liver of an elephant. The drinks seemed to have no effect on him. Then I thought of the Japanese bureaucrat. This Russian had pumped his “regular drinking buddy” for information, and then sent him happily on his way. Next, I realized that while he went through the motions of drinking, and drinking big, there was some sort of slight of hand going on. While I was drinking, he was only pretending to drink, and doing it very slyly. The restaurant was quite dark so it was easier to pull off than you would think.
To keep a long story from getting longer, a lot of what appears in TOKYO KILL in the spy sequence actually happened, including his last ploy to test my patriotism and decide if I would make a good recruit on one level or another. The guy was on the hunt for informants and information of a certain kind—government, industrial, diplomatic. He was extremely well trained, extremely smooth, and expert in his psychological ploys. He got inside your head very quickly. I had no doubt, after playing it all over again in my head the next day, that he could also be extremely deadly when he wanted to be. It was frightening stuff. And creepy.
Can you tell us anything about the developments with the television series?
All the kinks have been worked out of the contract, and it was signed three months ago. J. J. Abrams’s Bad Robot Productions renewed the option, and a scriptwriter is now in place. So concrete steps are being taken.
I understand there are several ways the show could go—a retelling of JAPANTOWN straight up, or an episodic approach where the story winds up each week but there is a longer arc for the characters lives. And I suspect there are others. The studio’s fascination is with Jim Brodie, the world he inhabits, and how he interprets things around him. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
Before you were a writer, you were an editor at a prominent Japanese publishing house. What’s it like to be on the other side of the process?
Just great fun. Simon & Schuster does many of the same things I did, but on the level of the Big Five New York publishers. They do many different things as well, and have greater resources, which I’m quite happy about. It’s fun to be involved and to watch it all play out. I can enjoy the process on several levels.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about being “a writer”?
Hands down, how great the readers and fans are. They’ve reached out to say hello, to write about how much they’ve enjoyed the books and why, and sometimes even to offer help. Everyone’s been so encouraging and enthusiastic.
Any advice to aspiring scribes trying to break in?
As far as the writing goes, aim high. Write your own story. Be wise enough to know that when you’ve reached the end the first time (or even the second), you are not done. Make your book as good as you can. Go out with your absolute best. If you know that a character is only half-developed but think no one will notice because it’s only one character of twenty, think again. They will notice. Fix it. If you know there’s a plot hole, but figure you can slide by because it’s buried in the last third, think again. And so on.
Before you go out to an agent or publisher, make sure you have three chapters that will have the readers in your genre (or sub-genre) begging for more. If you take the self-publishing route, remember the book will have your name on it, so show your best side. Have the work professionally edited and proofread. There are plenty of knowledgeable freelance professionals out there. Find one with a track record in your genre.
As a former editor, I get a lot of questions about writing. I have answers to some of the more commonly asked questions in the Writers’ Corner of my website.
You manage to weave in tons of Japanese insights without the books feeling like they are cultural textbooks or travel guides. What’s your secret to that balance? Is it a challenge given that many of your characters speak Japanese?
Brodie is based in San Francisco, but his life is a constant back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. So the story soon slips into a Japanese mode. Brodie is the guide and he peels away the layers smoothly and naturally, even as the readers see how exotic it all can be. I work hard to weave insights about the culture, history, and people into the plot and the action in a way that feels natural and doesn’t impede the flow.
And, yes, it is quite a challenge because, as you say, many of the characters are Japanese. Their thinking and their way of expressing themselves are often different. Brodie was born in Tokyo to two American parents of Caucasian extraction, but he went to Japanese schools and learned the language, the culture, and the mindset. But since he’s an American, this makes him the perfect liaison—an insider who can explain what’s going on in terms outsiders can grasp.
You obviously know a lot about Japan, but TOKYO KILL ventures into Chinese organized crime and culture. Brodie also ventures the globe. Did that require a lot of research (and travel)?
Some. Mostly what it requires is paying attention and being curious and finding the right people to ask the right questions to. The first two are what I guess I’ve done, on a modest level, in the more than twenty-five years I’ve lived in Japan, so I’ve got a vast store of ideas. The last is what I do now, when the story requires it. And then I hit the books for additional research and to double-check things.
You live some 6,000 miles from the United States—has that presented challenges in promoting your work? How do you stay plugged in?
So far that hasn’t been a major problem, mostly because I head for the States for four months or so when a book comes out. The rest I can handle through email, Skype, and social media. I get some wonderful notes from readers through my website, Facebook, and Twitter, all of which I answer. And organizations like the International Thriller Writers are also a godsend. They cut the distance dramatically, and I feel instantly at home when I attend their events. Everyone’s extremely nice. I get to meet readers, other authors, and professionals in the field.
Outside of the U.S., how have the books been received?
So far so good. The books have been sold, and continue to be sold, to foreign publishers. The German edition of JAPANTOWN has come out, and the French version is due soon. I’m already getting letters from readers and bookstores in both countries, which is brilliant. They love the Japanese aspects, as well as the San Francisco scenes, both of which are exotic to them.
What’s next for you and Jim Brodie?
I’ll be winding up the third book by the end of fall and diving into the fourth soon. Brodie’s network of acquaintances in the art world and in law enforcement grows with each new volume. Which means I have to get out there and check out the items I’m unfamiliar with. So I’m traveling around Japan more, and also around the U.S.
You know, when I first came to Japan, I spoke only English, but I’ve since learned Japanese. That has opened up so many new avenues, you can’t imagine. If I could go back in time and change something, I’d study several more languages. In school I pretty much breezed through every subject except foreign language. Funny how that works.
Barry Lancet’s first mystery-thriller, JAPANTOWN, was the result of more than two decades of living in Japan as an expat American. His work gave him inside access to many traditional and business circles most outsiders and Japanese are never granted, and the information gained over the years has found its way into his books. JAPANTOWN, has been nominated for a Barry Award for Best First Novel, was selected as a Best Debut of Year both by Suspense Magazine and mystery critic Oline Cogdill, and has been optioned by J. J. ABRAMS’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros, for a TV drama. TOKYO KILL is the second offering in the Jim Brodie series. Lancet is based in Japan, but visits the U.S. frequently.
To learn more, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Ben Simmons