American author Martin Cruz Smith keeps readers puzzling over both his crime thriller plots and his uncanny gift for describing other cultures as if they were his own. His 1981 best seller Gorky Park featured a Russian detective living in Moscow. Later novels have taken place in settings as varied as contemporary Cuba and 19th century England. Now he's written a novel called December 6, that takes place in Japan on the eve of World War II.
Martin Cruz Smith's new novel focuses on the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But in writing about December 6, 1941, he also recreates an era. Japan was seeking to become a dominant force in the Pacific and was already at war with China. Now facing a U.S. embargo on oil and other strategic exports, Japan was preparing to attack the United States as well.
Martin Cruz Smith says the mood of the time was anxious. "They were so pumped with nationalistic fervor," he said. "This was Japan's turn in the sun. They were also very keen on the idea that there was this stranglehold on Japanese industry, which they considered an act of war. And of course, their industry would be coming to a halt because of the embargo. In fact, the Japanese Navy didn't have enough fuel to go out for exercises at sea."
The main character of December 6 is Harry Niles, a master card player and tireless schemer with his own code of loyalty and honor. The son of American missionaries, Harry is viewed as a "gaijin," or foreigner by many Japanese. But in some ways, he's become more Japanese than American. "He's born in Japan, grows up in Japan, goes to school there, runs with the street gangs of Tokyo, kid's gangs," said Martin Cruz Smith. "Harry is always up to something, and he knows how desperate the Japanese are for oil. So Harry conceives one last grand scam that can stop the war. Harry doesn't want the war, because Harry loves Japan and does not want to see it destroy itself."
Harry plans to take what may be the last plane to Hong Kong once he carries out his plan. But there are all kinds of obstacles in his wayfrom the suspicion of the Japanese police to the murderous rage of a military fanatic he once humiliated. Much of the story takes place in what was at the time a flourishing center of Tokyo nightlife, the Asakusa district, also known as the Floating World. Harry runs a nightclub there called the Happy Paris, where he features the recordings of Artie Shaw and other popular American musicians of the time.
Martin Cruz Smith reads from his novel.
"Harry's part of Tokyo was Asakusa, and its theater row was lit with side-by-side marquees like Broadway. Life size posters of samurai stood between cardboard cutouts of Clark Gable and Mickey Mouse. Tall banners animated by the evening breeze invited the passerby to music halls like the Fuji and the International. Fortunetellers in tents with gnostic symbols read palms, faces, feet, bumps on the head. Harry watched police with short sabers stroll by. The rest of Tokyo hewed to wartime regulations about brothels closing by 10. But there was always action in Asakusa, which was too bizarre, too full of life to quell."
Beardsley: This is a book about Japan in which American music plays a huge role. Why is that?
Martin Cruz Smith: My parents are jazz musicians - were all their lives. And jazz is kind of a current through a number of my books. It gave me my rhythm in the midst of Japan. In the middle of this very different place and very different book, it was a heart beat I was familiar with.
Martin Cruz Smith says understanding the Japanese character posed an even tougher challenge than he'd faced in his other novels. He began by doing extensive reading - everything from official documents and newspapers to magazines and advertisements. "And then I'd read personal accounts, memoirs, simply because I wanted to know things like when you wake up in the morning, what are you sleeping on, what are you wearing, what's the first thing you hear? It's a vendor," he said. "Are they playing the flute? Are they singing? What's the first thing you smell? The first thing you smell is miso soup. So you get all this sensory world together, and bit by bit you start creating the outline of individuals."
Martin Cruz Smith also took several trips to Japan, but the author says the Tokyo he wanted to describe was hard to find. "There's so little of 1941 Japan left. It was firebombed flat," he said. "I would walk the city alone. I would walk the city with expatriate Americans. I would walk the city with Japanese, some Japanese who found it very difficult to open up. They wanted to help, but they really could not deal with such a painful subject, which also caused some degree of shame for their generation and great loss of face."
It was not until he met three elderly Japanese men near his home in California, says Martin Cruz Smith, that he found a way into that world. "And finally, one of them, 81 years old, half-Japanese, a 'gaijin' however in Japanese eyes, he went back to Tokyo with me and again I walked Tokyo, but this time with a perfect guide," he said.
Martin Cruz Smith says he knows he can never truly understand another place just by reading about it and making a few visits. But he's found that by being patient and attentive, a chance encounter or an overheard conversation can give him an unexpected glimpse into the heart of a culture. And that's what keeps him searching for new settings. "There are moments like bubbles of pure delight that come out of this," he said.
Martin Cruz Smith is now working on another novel about the Russian detective hero he first wrote about in Gorky Park.