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Onyx reviews: December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith

Anyone from the west visiting Japan quickly realizes they're in a foreign country. Everything screams "different," from the shapes of buildings to the shapes of the words on street signs. Martin Cruz Smith shows the human side of Tokyo in the early years of the last century, illuminating the people and their motives.

Harry Niles' parents were American missionaries in Tokyo during the 1920s. Without much parental guidance, Harry attended Japanese schools, shaved his head like his classmates, became fluent in the language and culture and could almost pass for a Japanese boy.

Almost. For all his familiarity with language and custom, he would always be a gaijin, an outsider. The Japanese pronoun for foreigners translates to "it" rather than "he." When re-enacting classic samurai stories with his Japanese friends, he was always the victim.

When not at play, Harry wandered through the city's seedy underbelly - gambling parlors, dens of iniquity. Though his parents try to save him from his street-wise ways by taking him back to America, Harry returns to Tokyo as an adult in the late 1930s. He does publicity for American film companies and runs the Happy Paris, a jukebox watering hole for journalists, consulate workers and other ex-patriots.

Harry's bilingual fluency and ingenuity make him an asset to Japanese and American interests, but both suspect him of spying for the other side. As the likelihood of war with America grows in late 1941, Harry's situation becomes increasingly delicate. His Japanese mistress Michiko is convinced he plans to abandon her for his American mistress, a British diplomat's wife and code breaker. Japanese "Thought Police," who arrive unannounced in the middle of the night, dog his heels, trying to shake some of his secrets loose.

Secrets Harry has in no short supply. He's running a con on the Japanese Navy devised to prevent his beloved country - Japan - from entering a war he knows it can't win. He knows Tokyo is a tinderbox of paper houses susceptible to the mere flames of a candle, let alone incendiary bombs.

He's also being pursued by a sword-wielding military hero who lost face during a brief encounter with Harry in China, several years earlier. Heads will literally roll and it's up to Harry to keep his long enough to save those he cares for, wrap up his risky business by December 6, 1941 and keep a date with a plane bound for Hong Kong. December 6 is Casablanca in an Oriental setting without the melodrama.

Martin Cruz Smith has clearly done extensive homework. Getting inside a modern foreign culture is difficult enough but Smith has complicated his task by setting his story over a half century ago. A time of geishas and samurais, when Japanese distrusted outsiders and worshipped their emperor as a god.

Some authors are adept at creating lifelike, believable characters; some are more skilled at capturing place or time. Smith has mastered all of these. Harry is an entertainingly roguish would-be spy reminiscent of a character from a John Le Carre novel. Officials on both sides attribute more power to him than he really has, but he's not without influence.

Readers know, of course, what will happen on December 8th (Japanese time) but Smith has them believing Harry's scheming could change history. He also humanizes the city and people who for over half a century have been on the other side of the day that lives on in infamy.

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