June 21, 2009

Books: Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith established his name with the Arkady Renko novels, the best-selling Gorky Park in particular. While many of his other books have been detective novels, this is more of a period adventure. The main character is Harry Niles, an American growing up in Japan in the early decades of the century. Largely ignored by his missionary parents, Niles carves out his own identity running with his Japanese school friends and developing a fascination for the nightlife of Asakusa.

The novel looks at three different stages of his life, his early years in 1922, his time in China, and in particular Nanking in 1937 and back in Tokyo in 1941 in the final days leading up to the Pearl Harbour attack. Niles' character is part Rick Blaine and part Saint Jack, with self-interest and a quick buck seemingly uppermost in every decision he makes. The Casablanca comparison goes further with Niles trying to secure the paperwork that will give him safe passage to Hong Kong on one of the last flights out of Tokyo. As you read, you are never quite sure where Harry's real loyalty lies, which makes the ending all the more satisfactory.

As well as crafting an enjoyable novel, Smith has done a fantastic job of evoking the atmosphere of pre-war Tokyo which must have been the product of a great deal of research. Worth reading.

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