It’s always amazing how I run across new authors. Word of mouth, mostly. I often look at the back cover of a book that I like to see what other authors supplied blurbs for it. Perhaps I’ll pick up a new author in a book review in a newspaper article or online. Or I’ll scan my librarian listservs and something pops out. I’ve never read Martin Cruz Smith, even though he’s been around forever. (He first got attention with “Gorky Park” back in the 80s.) But his name came up on a listserv, and we happened to have one of his books, and I took it off the shelf on a whim.
Damn good book. December 6 is a historical novel, taking place in Tokyo the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The protagonist is Harry, born to Christian missionaries and raised on the decadent streets of Tokyo. He learns his craft running errands for prostitutes and deubached artists, and by the time the novel takes place, he’s a wheeler and a dealer, trying to keep his neck on his shoulders between the Japanese who think he is a spy and the Americans who aren’t sure he’s even one of them any more. He runs a swinging nightclub – the parallels between Harry and Humphrey Bogart’s character from “Casablanca” end there – and he seems to have a line on everyone, from bar waitresses to the highest ranking ambassadors.
He’s made several enemies, especially in the Japanese military, and his manipulating comes to a head over the course of the novel. Cruz excels at weaving a delicious sense of time and place – I cringe at how much research must have gone in to writing this novel, as the book is written as if Cruz himself had lived there. Tokyo before the waris a heady mix of freewheeling modernism and harsh jingoism, the nation poised to take control over their part of the globe. Harry juggles his responsibilities and his enemies and his romances, and comes within inches of getting killed. He’s a memorable character, a romantic who is in love with the Japanese culture and sees in it something greater than himself.
Make no mistake – this isn’t a mere thriller or mystery. This isn’t genre. This book has heft. It’s literary. It’s a book that warms the cockles of the hearts of the New York Times Book Review editors. So if you’re looking for something on that level, you’ll love it. But just the same, it’s an absorbing and compelling read, and you’ll like it if you’re just looking for a good book, too.