Barry Lancet is the author of the Jim Brodie series of thrillers, featuring the Tokyo-based PI and antiques dealer. Lancet hit the ground running with the first novel in the series, Japantown, which was nominated for a Barry Award and selected as the Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine in 2013. It was highly praised by critics. Booklist called it a “solid mystery with a memorable protagonist, the book captures our interest from the first page,” while the New York Times dubbed it a “sophisticated international thriller.” Japantown was also optioned for television by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros.
The eagerly awaited sequel, Tokyo Kill, just released, takes readers into the realms of the Triads, Chinese spies, and Japanese kendo warriors, in a “first-rate mystery,” according to Booklist. Similarly, Kirkus Reviews felt that this series is “highly distinctive.”
Lancet may have been a first time novelist with Japantown, but he was not new to publishing or to Japan, having lived in Tokyo for twenty-five years and working for one of Japan’s premier publishing houses, developing books on Japanese culture from history to fiction, and from Japanese cuisine to martial arts.
The first time I visited Japan was on pure whim. I’d planned on going to London and Paris, but when some new Japanese acquaintances suggested I come visit them in Tokyo, I said as a joke that maybe I’d “go the long way around from California to Europe.”
Several years on that is exactly what I did. Then I returned to the States to finish college and find a job, but Japan lingered in my dreams. I couldn’t shake it. Eventually, the pull was too strong, so five years later I headed back across the Pacific, with the idea of continuing to pursue publishing and writing in Tokyo. Which is what I did.
What things about Japan make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Tokyo is this intriguing mix of a modern megacity and exotic splashes of traditional culture. So are many other places throughout the country, but in different combinations. Layer onto that specific Japanese customs, history, legendary manners, cleanliness, the newer “cool” pop culture, and so many more of the country’s unique qualities and there is a great and endlessly fascinating pool of settings from which to draw.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story?
I set out to use Japan as a backdrop because I’d lived there for twenty-five years, and I’ve learned and seen so much. I am still based there. The idea of choosing a vivid location—whether in America or elsewhere overseas—was driven home to me in a memorable conversation I had with a rabid mystery/thriller fan, who also happened to be a bookstore owner.
He had this theory that a great thriller or mystery has four things: top-notch character, plot, dialogue, and sense of place. Great books present all four well, very good ones at least three, and passable at least two. Plenty of twos and even ones get published, but the books that break away from the pack are the threes and fours. Particularly the fours.
His “four” is the target I strive to hit.
Jim Brodie moves between two locations, Tokyo and San Francisco. Both have culture and character, as well as some of the best things each country has to offer. Each city is elegant and exotic in its own way, so I have no trouble selecting fascinating backdrops to set scenes. I look for locations that have character, but the setting must also arise organically as a natural continuation of the story. I should add that Brodie goes many other places in the States and Japan, and to other countries. In each case I apply the same principles.
How does Brodie interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Brodie?
Great question. Brodie is unique in that he is a hybrid. He’s American but both an insider and an outsider. Because of his upbringing, he can explain Japan with an insider’s perspective in a way any outsider can understand.
Brodie is able to do this because he spent the first seventeen years of his life in Tokyo. He attended Japanese schools, where he absorbed the language, the culture, and the mindset of the people. Having been born to Caucasian parents living in Tokyo, he can think like the Japanese and also think like the American he is. He’s the perfect conduit.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’m happy to report that the response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic among local interviewers/reviewers, every expat in Japan I’ve heard from via the website, and—equally satisfying—from Japanese readers.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting Japan or its time periods? Please share—the more humorous the better.
I’ve skirted that danger so far, but in a related incident mischievous gremlins of unknown origin did creep into JAPANTOWN somewhere during the final stages. I still don’t know where or how or when, but I suspect an overzealous autocorrect function sprang into action when some function in the file was reset. The spellings of several San Francisco street names were “corrected” long after they were set. I heard from a lot of readers (thank you!), but Simon & Schuster corrected them in subsequent print and digital versions, so all is well. S&S is great about that sort of thing.
TOKYO KILL has a large number of distinct locations in Japan and elsewhere, and I have a lot of favorite scenes, so it’s difficult to pick one. That said, the thriller does have an important sequence in the port town of Yokohama, where Brodie and Tokyo policewoman Rie Hoshino must jump through a series of hoops before they are taken to a secret rendezvous with a vital contact.
Yokohama is, to take a line from the book, “the black sheep of the Greater Tokyo area. It is something less than Japanese, and something more.” Brodie and Hoshino are led through back alleys, secret passages, and finally end up at the foot of the old Chinese cemetery, eager to meet their contact:
His look had been cryptic from the start.
Danny Chang had led us up the set of decaying stairs to a hilltop crowded with Chinese tombstones.
Behind a brick temple with vermilion doors, I saw the mausoleum, home to the “patient dead.” Years ago, a coffin ship would transport the deceased back to the motherland. The custom ground to a halt when Mao closed China. The caskets of homesick expats piled up. I wondered if they still waited.
“This is Uncle Chang,” Danny had said.
The mysterious man we’d come to meet sat on a cemetery bench. He wore a gray knit shirt and a threadbare navy blazer with a rolled Chinese newspaper stuffed into a side pocket. He’d plunged right in with the Black Wind.
Now he asked, “The killers came at night?”
“All except the ferry attack.”
“With chopping weapons?”
Uncle Chang closed his eyes and placed his hands on his knees. His breathing slowed. I sent a questioning look at Danny but his gaze was fixed on the family Ti Zang. Their seer.
A minute passed. Then another. Chang opened his eyes, reached for a pack of Guangdong cigarettes on the bench next to his leg, and lit up.
“What you think, Brodie-san?” he asked, exhaling the question with a blast of blue-gray smoke.
“Everyone thinks they’re Triads.”
“What you think?”
From a distance they looked Japanese but didn’t. A bit closer and they looked Chinese but didn’t.
“I want to believe we’re dealing with Triads because it gives us a clear target, but I’m not convinced. And one of my sources insists it’s not Triads.”
Chang nodded in appreciation. “You found clever source.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I have a number of favorite works by authors I admire, but I tend to linger over one or two of their best works. I’ve read far and wide—American, British, Russian, French, and more—so my influences are more mosaic-like than singular. I might recall the best part or parts from one novel or another, but no one book or writer dominates.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’m already living in one of the places I want to live—Tokyo. Next up, in no particular order, Paris, Kyoto, Vienna, Rome (for a spell, spring to mid-summer), New York city, and a half a dozen other locations for a year or so.
What’s next for your protagonist?
The third Jim Brodie book has him dealing with higher powers in Japan, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Only one of them is benign. The other two are dangerous and potentially deadly. All the while, Brodie just wants to get back to the antique shop he runs.
On the personal front, he’s growing closer to a feisty new love interest who first appears in TOKYO KILL. And his precocious, far-too-observant daughter is stirring up trouble of her own.
Barry–thanks much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more on Barry Lancet, visit his home page.