"The Spy Across the Table" begins during a kabuki performance in Washington DC with a backstage double murder resulting in a commission for Jim Brodie, the art dealer cum private investigator, from no less than the First Lady of the United States. But as Brodie was personally acquainted with both of the murder victims, he needs no encouragement to work to solve the crime. What he needs is for Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and others in law enforcement, to step out of his way.
Alas, that is easier said than done as Brodie finds himself following clues across the American continent to one victim's funeral in San Francisco and across the Pacific to the other victim's funeral in Tokyo, stopping only for altercations and epicurean adventures along the way.
He gets helpful hints from a self-serving Chinese spy with gourmet tastes, useful introductions from his Japanese policewoman girlfriend, and other assistance from his vast network of friends and acquaintances, while fending off other spies, kidnappers, Japanese mafioso, and those pesky Americans who are trying to block his investigation.
The twists and turns sometimes make it seem that every plan Brodie comes up with is unraveled by unanticipated events, yet somehow he manages to push his way through, sometimes under his own steam, but more often with the assistance of others, whether it is his business partner, Noda, POTUS and FLOTUS, or even the Chinese spy.
I recently had the chance to sit down with author Barry Lancet to discuss his latest book and Jim Brodie, his protagonist. "The Spy Across the Table" is Lancet's fourth Jim Brodie thriller, a clear indication that he's found a character and a subject matter that engages readers. While the book centers on a well established character, it is written in such a way that one need not have read any of the previous novels in order to enjoy this one.
Like Lancet, I am an American who has made my home in Japan for most of my adult life, so I have no difficulty appreciating both the way that his novels move easily between the U.S. and Japan and his cultural interpretations/introductions.
But I found Brodie's schizophrenic career as both an Asian art dealer in San Francisco and part owner of a private security firm in Tokyo puzzling, until Lancet explained his desire to ensure that Brodie, who is also schooled in martial arts and prone to using his fighting skills, comes across as something more than a thug.
Since Brodie is also a single parent of a young daughter and a principled and devoted friend, in fact, he is a complex and multi-dimensional character anyway. And these are the traits that most come across in this latest novel, in which he must travel from the U.S. to Japan to Korea to China, and back again, to track down both the killer and a kidnapper, to rescue the damsel in distress, and to discover the mystery behind the crimes.
That's not to say that Brodie's thuggish side doesn't also surface regularly. I lost count of the number of fights Brodie got into in this latest novel, but I never got tired of reading them because Lancet writes the scenes so engagingly. When I pointed this out to him, Lancet brightened and shared that he had recently received a note from the voice actor working on the audio book version praising Lancet's fight scenes for their detail, including both physical fighting and the psychology behind the fight, as well as their pacing. At the same time, Lancet confessed that he himself had no particular martial arts training or skill but was building on knowledge acquired in his earlier career as a book editor.
Lancet is also very adept at infusing his books with both Japanese traditions and pop culture in ways that demystify them while somehow preserving the exoticism. Whether it is the history of a kabuki costume, the world of computer hacking, the value system of the yakuza, or the vast culinary variety on offer in Tokyo, Lancet has woven each element into the story to both pique reader interest and bring the reader in. Says Lancet: "I'm careful not to dumb things down. I want to distill things to their essence and keep it interesting." He succeeds.
The short chapters ensure that the book is fast-paced. So much so that I almost felt jet lagged as I followed Brodie from location to location. Brodie very nearly gets himself to North Korea at one stage, when he learns that is the intended destination of the kidnap victim. It is, of course, purely coincidental that North Korea should be so much in the news just as this book has gone to press, but it makes the tale so much more timely and realistic.
I don't want to give away any more of the story; you'll just have to read it for yourself. Trust me, it will keep you on your toes. And if you haven't read any of Lancet's other Brodie novels, you may find yourself wanting to by the time you're done with this one.
Interestingly, Lancet says that he's toying with centering his next book on a different character. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with, although I can't help but feeling that eventually Brodie will be back.
"The Spy Across the Table" went on sale Monday in hard copy, Kindle edition and audiobook.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about living and traveling in Japan. See her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today