- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

DECEMBER 6
By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon and Schuster, $26, 339 pages
REVIEWED BY WOODY WEST

Harry Niles is a liar, a thief, forger and gambler. These qualities, matched to the requisite audacity, make him a very slick con man: "Harry's confidence was in his unrighteousness, his ability to dodge the consequences." This gamy protagonist in "December 6" will have more than a walk-on role as the United States and Japan converge toward war.
The son of Protestant missionaries in Japan in the early 1920s who are an unattractive (and, in this novel, caricatured) couple, Harry is thus also a "gaijin" a "foreigner" so degraded a status to the racially chauvinistic Japanese that the pronoun of reference is "it," not "he" or "she." He is in effect abandoned by his parents in their peripatetic evangelism, to be raised by his Japanese nurse and to attend a Japanese school. The reader first meets him as a schoolboy, culturally more native than American though as a gaijin tolerated with contempt by his schoolmates while running wild with them in Asakusa, a raffish theater and gin-mill section of Tokyo.
When Harry's missionary parents return to Tokyo unexpectedly and shockingly find their adolescent son on the futon with a young woman, they indignantly inform Harry that they've been recalled to the United States because it has been disclosed that currency manipulation is among their son's precocious talents. They regard Harry as "a sort of amphibian, neither honest nor stupid, neither adult nor innocent, neither American nor Japanese."
Harry returns to the States with them, spends a brief period at a Bible college and after a skein of marginal jobs manages to become a promoter for a Hollywood studio. He lands a gig as a movie promoter in Japan but no sooner steps ashore than he finds the company out of business and he's on his own.
Now, as the novel picks up steam, it is the fateful month of December 1941. Harry is 30, running a seedy bar in Tokyo, paying protection to the yakuza (the mob), living with a Japanese mistress, Michiko, a former geisha, now a communist and not a girl you'd take home to meet the folks.
He is also firmly plugged into influential echelons of Japanese society, commercial and governmental. To the American community, Harry Niles is considered a premature collaborator with an increasingly bellicose Japan, and indeed he does some delicate chores for the rulers of a nation already ravaging China.
He is viewed by the Tokyo government, however, as suspect in his activities despite his usefulness. It may be that he is a spy but for which side? Since Mr. Smith wrote the widely praised "Gorky Park," he has been referred to as a premier producer of thrillers, which is as much merchandising as literary label. Thrillers of the "beach-read/airport" variety emphasize vivid, continuous and sanguinary action, with plot more critical than character. The protagonist usually has some dimension though most of the cast are not much more than animated figures popping about in formulaic functions. Plausibility of time and place is desirable but not mandatory.
Martin Cruz Smith's craft of storytelling, however, is far above that minimal criteria. As with Elmore Leonard in his "crime" stories, he has graduated from the genre. Mr. Smith's supporting actors are believably drawn, the historical canvas and the cultural context are persuasive, and the plot twists and weaves with narrative energy occasionally the twisting and the weaving get in each other's way.
While Harry is not demur about being a con man, "December 6" involves a more dangerous confidence game than those he has used to stay afloat. Indeed, the imminent war is little more than a gigantic con game, in Harry's (or the author's) hyper-skeptical perspective: The struggle for power within the Japanese government and the tentacles of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is based on the con of the emperor's divinity; the Western powers, with England and the United States as the heavy lifters, are involved in massive confidence games of their own variants of national interest in seeking to constrain Japanese expansion.
The United States earlier that year prohibited export of strategic materiel to Japan, most critically oil. Oil, especially aviation fuel, figures centrally in Japan's decision whether to seize the initiative and attack America.
This is historically accurate. But where might the attack come? Harry, for reasons which are as tangled as his background, finds himself immersed in this fateful equation, and this in turn involves the fierce competition between the Japanese army and navy in setting strategic policy.
It is a layered and often ambiguous game of which, enough said here. In addition to his mistress, Michiko, whose flammable temper is heated further by Harry's adulterous affair with the wife of the British ambassador, there is Kato, an artist who befriends the younger Harry and acts as a guide to the subtly complex Japanese culture. There is Gen, a boyhood friend, more or less, now is a naval officer and aide to the powerful (and historical) Adm. Tomoyuki Yamamoto, who is not anxious to take on the United States. There is also a "good" Nazi and a host of other participants in this tale who are engagingly delineated.
In "December 6," Harry Niles' immediate concern is getting safely out of Japan before war erupts. He has, he reflects, one vulnerability in achieving that exit: "He had performed one decent act in his life and something so out of character was bound to catch up."
The man who ultimately will determine Harry's future if indeed he is to have one is the illegitimate son of an old samurai family. Ishigami, an army officer, and Harry collided in Nanking during the infamous rape of that city in 1937, where Harry was quietly doing "asset searches" for the Japanese government seeking oil supplies. Ishigami, a fellow of kinky habits, is almost demented in his adherence to archaic samurai loyalties and the ruthless protocols of a long-dead age.
In Nanking, Harry and the good Nazi, Willy, are feverishly trying to save a few of the Chinese from the awful slaughter, using forged papers and documents. They interrupt Ishigami as he is brutally and sequentially beheading a group of 10 prisoners. They rescue half of them, relying on the phony documents and nerve. At which the enraged samurai tells Harry, "You owe me five heads."
That debt will come due the day before Harry has deviously secured passage on the last civilian flight to Hong Kong before Pearl Harbor. Harry fails to make the flight when he and Ishigami once more face each other in a theatrical but deadly conclusion.
Then we learn that Harry Niles is an even more complex character than he often seems. A sizzling yarn by Mr. Smith.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.



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