Interview by MysteryPeople contributor Scott Butki
Pacific Burn, Barry Lancet’s latest thriller, and his third in his Jim Brodie series, at least for me, departed from the traditional detective story from the start – yet the more I read, the more I got into it…. and grew to love it.
Why is it a departure? Well, let me set the stage for you. As the book begins, a character who soon becomes the protagonist is interrupted from his work liaising between the U.S. and Japan, and his second job, selling high priced classic Japanese art to wealthy Americans, to go to a crime scene, where someone has been asking to talk to him. Immediately, I think, OK, I am pretty ignorant about both Japan and most classic art, so I may have trouble connecting and relating. Through the eyes of Lancet’s protagonist, however, the reader easily becomes immersed in the criminal underworld’s lust for high-priced art.
One major plot thread was inspired by real life: the Fukushima nuclear meltdown after a disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. I live in Tokyo, and at talks for my first two books, people often asked me about the leaking radiation and why so little was known about this major disaster that obliterated entire towns and did God-knows-what to the environment. Reports indicated that a lot had been hidden from the public by Japan’s so-called “nuclear mafia.” It was a story just waiting to be told.
At the crime scene the protagonist, Jim Brodie, meets a boy, whose dad has been brutally murdered. The boy is understandably having trouble processing what he saw. They go through the steps we all know by now from the police procedural subgenre – attempts at interviews (which go nowhere) and getting a sketch of the suspect (more of a success.) The sketch artist gives the usual “yeah, we’re going to get them now.” This fails to comfort the child, who now fears his whole family, spread around the world, to be in danger and Brodie plans to help protect them from more injuries.
Why is Brodie the one for the case? As he accepts his new mission, we start to learn a lot more about our protagonist: he inherited from his father a detective agency, based in Japan. And the reader goes, oooh, ok, I can relate to a detective even if understanding the Japanese art market is a bit of a stretch. Then we realize Brodie’s in trouble with the Japanese mafia, and a few more bits of knowledge click into place.
You get the idea.
I ask Lancet, via email interview, to tell us not just how he came up with the story but also what he’s learned from living in Japan for 25 years. He also tells us about his work for a major publisher and how a “voluntary interview” with the Tokyo police led to his writing of his Jim Brodie series. This is the third book in this series.
Scott Butki: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Barry Lancet: One major plot thread was inspired by real life: the Fukushima nuclear meltdown after a disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. I live in Tokyo, and at talks for my first two books, people often asked me about the leaking radiation and why so little was known about this major disaster that obliterated entire towns and did God-knows-what to the environment. Reports indicated that a lot had been hidden from the public by Japan’s so-called “nuclear mafia.” It was a story just waiting to be told.
SB: I’m new to this series – can you tell me how you developed the idea of a protagonist who is an American who is an expert on Japan and an art dealer?
BL: As an expat living in Japan, I’ve been fascinated with Japanese culture and life in Tokyo, so it was only natural that my protagonist would be a Japan expert. It’s allowed me to explore things few outsiders from Japan ever see.
Jim Brodie interprets the orient in the way Sherlock Holmes or Monk interprets an inexplicable action or crime scene, whether he’s in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or Tokyo. And Brodie also knows the ways of martial arts. I wanted to have a hero who was unique, and Brodie hit the mark.
SB: How much of the character and plots are you pulling from your own experiences? I assume your having lived and worked in Japan for 25 years has informed your work?
BL: Much of it. I’ve met high-ranking artists, businessmen, politicians, and many more. I was once forced to spend two grueling hours with a very aggressive foreign spy, and that episode informs the spy sequence in one of the novels. And as I mentioned, my experience in the recent earthquake-Fukushima meltdown led to a major plot thread in Pacific Burn.
SB: How do you go about researching your books?
BL: Having lived in Japan for so long, I know many of the ins and out, so I fall back on my own experience first. And I have resources—reliable people and books—for gaps I need to fill. I visit or revisit the locals I want to use. And when necessary, as I did for the cosplay sequence in Pacific Burn, I’ll interview people in Japanese. I always have an eye toward nuance, color, and accuracy. I also do research when I’m back in the U.S. for my book tours. For instance, Pacific Burn has scenes in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Napa.
SB: What was it like having your first book, Japantown, named Best Debut of the Year by Suspense Magazine?
BL: Brilliant, but frankly I was astonished. And when it won the Barry Award for Best First Mystery, my amazement redoubled. Then the second book, Tokyo Kill, was chosen as a Finalist for a Shamus Award for Best Novel. That was quite an honor as well. Once it fully registered, my next thought was “Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.” Seriously, what the recognition told me was that I was getting through to readers. There’s nothing better than that.
SB: Do you find yourself trying to educate readers about Japan and/or art as you write or those just backgrounds to the bigger mysteries?
BL: Many readers have told me that they learn something along the way, and they’re happy. For me, I offer that as a bonus to what I hope is an intriguing, fast-paced story.
SB: The release for the book offers up some tidbits as possible discussion topics and I’m going to bite. What was your experience living through the mega-quake in Japan in March 2011? What lies and deceit did you see Japan tell and how did that help inspire Pacific Burn?
BL: I’ve been in big earthquakes in California and Japan before, but even though I was 150 miles from the epicenter, in Tokyo, the 2011 Fukushima quake was bigger than all the rest. 9.1 on the Richter scale. The ground shook for 5 minutes, not the usual 30 to 90 seconds. That is no exaggeration. Tokyo shut down. Fresh supplies grew scarce. Power brown-outs occurred. The trains system stalled out. Then the tsunami wiped out the power plant, and the utility and the government were unprepared. Radiation began to leak and suddenly being 150 miles away was no guarantee of safety. As the threat of radiation spread, the country was also trying to deal with the fact that thousands of people were swept out to sea by the series of tsunami that struck 200 miles of coastline. At their height the waves were 35 feet—as tall as a three-story building. One of our friends disappeared. Radiation leaks increased but the nuclear authorities offered no information.
So much so, the Japanese prime minister complained. Facts were so scarce, one town actually evacuated into an area of higher radiation. The hows and whys of the alleged collusion and cover-up by the nuclear mafia were stunning. That is partly what Pacific Burn is about. Sometimes the crime comes to the crime writer.
SB: What’s this about a “voluntary interview” with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department that turned into a three-hour interrogation? How did that influence this series?
BL: It took me six months to get a special visa to live in Japan. About fourteen months after I’d been there, I came home from a night out with friends after work to learn the Tokyo police had called my house and “requested” I appear at the station the next day at ten. So on Sunday morning I dragged myself down to the TPD building, having no idea what they wanted.
With a scowl and a grunt, a burly Japanese cop in uniform took me into the bowels of the station and locked me in an interrogation room. Forty-five minutes later a police detective in a suit, tie, and perfectly starched white shirt waltzed in and began interrogating me in English, since at the time I didn’t yet speak Japanese.
I was angry at first. Particularly since they wouldn’t tell me why I’d been summoned. The detective’s questions were probing and personal. There seemed to be no boundaries. It took me only a minute to realize that if I didn’t give satisfactory answers they could throw me out of the country. My anger grew but then a funny thing happened. The detective was smart and savvy and the threat was real, but I became fascinated with his technique.
By the end of the three-hour grilling, the detective knew secrets about me even my parents didn’t know, but the experience caused me to change my views of all my encounters in Japan. I began to see things in a new light. At the same time, when I got the idea for a mystery-thriller set in Japan and the U.S., I thought back to that day. The burly uniformed cop became Brodie’s scowling barrel-chested PI sidekick Noda and the interrogator became Inspector Kato who has a minor role in Japantown and a major one in Tokyo Kill.
SB: I understand you were, prior to these novels, an editor of a large publisher? Can you speak to that? What kind of stuff did you publish and what did you learn from the experience?
BL: I commissioned and edited countless books for major markets around the world. Topics included Japanese art, traditional crafts, Buddhism, the tea ceremony, Asian philosophy, martial arts, Japanese cuisine, politics, business, history, classic Zen gardens, and many more. Most of the subjects focused on Japanese traditional themes, but some were about China or the U.S. All of this gave me inside access to local experts and their worlds. Which in turn instilled a lot of specialized knowledge I try to work into my books.
SB: What are you working on next?
BL: I’m in the middle of the fourth Jim Brodie book. It takes him to new heights and places. And greater danger. I’m having so much fun with it I’m writing it slower than usual. It opens with an unexpected shooting in the most unlikely of places.