You can tell from the titles of author Barry Lancet’s previous three novels featuring reluctant PI Jim Brodie that the writer likes to draw on his deep knowledge of Japan in his globe-trotting adventures: Japantown, Tokyo Kill, and Pacific Burn. In these books, Lancet shows off what he’s learned from his considerable experience living and working in Japan for over 25 years, where he edited books on Japanese history, arts, and philosophy.
Now, The Spy Across the Table might spend much of its time in Washington D.c. and San Francisco, but Brodie again shows off how much of a Japan and Asiatic expert his character is, not to mention how much Brodie learned in his father’s Tokyo security firm, especially regarding physical combat, and how he can be pulled into strange murder mysteries against his will. In this case, Brodie witnesses the shooting deaths of two of his close friends on a Kennedy Center opera stage which sets him off into trying to track down the killer. At first glance, these deaths during a Kabuki play might not make anyone think of international espionage, but in short order Brodie is called into action by the U.S.’s First Lady despite the unhappiness of American intelligence agencies over his participation. Just why does the President think Brodie can contribute to an investigation when National Security agents are all over the case?
Then, Brodie is involved with Chinese and North Korean interests in a murky game revolving around a somewhat bizarre and inexplicable kidnapping, most particularly in a duel with Chinese spy Zhou, the man Brodie matches wits with across restaurant tables. And that’s just the first half of the novel.
Readers unfamiliar with the previous Brodie tales need not worry about knowing what went on in Brodie’s life before Spy as there are apparently no integrated plotlines linking the books. From time to time, we get summaries of what happened in those yarns. Perhaps the earlier novels revealed more about his character as we don’t learn much in the new book about who he is beyond his own actions and choices, at least for the first 100 pages or so. Character development isn’t the point and I often thought of detective stories of the ‘40s and ‘50s where hard-boiled gumshoes tracked down their prey with little introspection or second guessing of their actions. Like such pulp adventures narrated in the first person, Lancet quickly drops us into a fast-paced story with Brodie chasing a killer through the back rooms of a theatre before the chase widens far beyond that of a seemingly pointless double murder in the U.S. capital. Then, Brodie travels to Japan, his home turf, and that’s when we begin to learn much about his family, friendships, and love life.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of this story is Brodie’s bad luck at finding himself ensnared in increasingly impossible situations and his skill an fortitude in extricating himself from dilemmas that would end the careers of many another hero. Lancet is very good at presenting surprise after surprise. In fact, that’s my favorite characteristic of the book, that no matter what hot water Jim Brodie is plunged into, he’s able to find very unexpected ways out of danger. So if you like your thrillers fusing espionage with murder mysteries, set in locations vividly described, and moving at a fast, dense clip with more twists and turns than many another author’s entire canon might provide, The Spy Across the Table should be very diverting summer reading.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com May 22, 2017