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December 6: A Novel    by Martin Cruz Smith order for
December 6
by Martin Cruz Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It's always a long wait for a new novel by Martin Cruz Smith and it is always worth the wait. In December 6, the author gives us his usual combination of exotic locale, complicated and contradictory protagonist, and ill-starred romance, but there any similarity to previous works abruptly ends.

This novel is set in Tokyo in the few days immediately preceding the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is told from the point of view of Harry Niles - missionary's son, con man, lover and gambler; all in all a most engaging ruffian. But is he more than that? Flashbacks to Harry's childhood slowly reveal a man who grew up in the 1920s more Japanese than the Japanese but always the gaijin. In his parents' absence he attended Japanese school and ran wild in the Floating World of Asakusa, the Nightless City. There he was mentored and baptized as Japanese by the artist Kato, and found in chorus girl Oharu a big sister and a first love.

The story begins on December 6, 1941. In a role reversal on the Casablanca plot, Harry, who 'would take five percent on the apocalypse', owns the Happy Paris bar and plans to fly out of Tokyo in two days with British Alice Beechum, leaving behind Japanese Michiko. She is the enigmatic Record Girl at his bar, whose dream is to die together with her lover. As well as owning a bar, Harry works as a movie representative in a country mad for Hollywood. Certain that war will be disastrous for Japan and for his life there, Harry has done his part to prevent it, via an elaborate sting centered on the nation's desperate need for oil.

There are fascinating historical and cultural details like the number of Japanese words for the progression of a fire; early captioning by a Movie Man in whose translations all heroines are Mary; or wartime shortages resulting in cars powered by charcoal, like riding a hibachi. Though Harry is reviled by the expat community as a collaborator, we see him capable of careless kindnesses - he rescues a boy's pet beetle from a fire, and he saved Michiko 'from a crackdown on the last Reds in Tokyo.' There is also his Schindler's List role in China. There Harry helped a Nazi friend save victims of Japanese slaughter and so gained the relentless enmity of Ishigami, a psychotic samurai of the old school and also a childhood acquaintance.

With both Thought Police and Ishigami close behind, Harry carries out his schemes until Pearl Harbor interrupts and changes everything. The plot climaxes in a chase through Asakusa, eerily reminiscent of the childhood samurai game that started the story. In deadly danger, Harry is awarded the ultimate accolade when he is called a 'true ronin'. December 6 is a brilliant, intricate tale that combines history and mystery with an unlikely romance between two people with a gift for survival; it's a must read.

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