Book Review of December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith
Ever since I read Gorky Park, I’ve always looked forward to anything by Martin Cruz Smith. His novel, Rose, is probably my favorite mystery. Martin Cruz Smith is a master at capturing the essence of a place, its rhythms and people and peculiarities that make it unique.
When you read his books, you have no problem immersing yourself in the locale where each book is set, whether it’s Moscow, Havana, the Bering Sea, or a nineteenth-century English coal-mining town. His characters are lovable and flawed, usually a tad cynical, and are the type of people whom you easily find yourself fitting within their skin.
I eagerly sat down to read December 6 (titled Tokyo Station outside North America), expecting intriguing characters and a plot full of twists and turns usually found in a Martin Cruz Smith story. This novel splendidly delivered both.
Harry Niles was raised in Tokyo, attended Japanese schools, and for all intents and purposes was a Japanese man, except that he was born in America. His parents were Baptist missionaries who left Harry behind with his alcoholic uncle in Tokyo while they tried to convert the Japanese in the countryside. Harry grew up on the streets of the Asakusa section of Tokyo, the pleasure zone of theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, and prostitutes.
He and his childhood friends Gen, Hajime, Tetsu, Taro, and Giro would play out the story of the 47 ronin in the street, with five of them being samurai chasing and beating the evil Lord Kira. Harry, being the gaijin (foreigner), would always play the unwanted role of Lord Kira. Likewise, at school he would be outfitted with a padded vest and wicker helmet so the other boys could use him for bayonet practice. Being a gaijin, Harry could never be Japanese and it was a lesson repeatedly taught to him throughout his life.
As Harry grew up, he was a petty thief, a pickpocket, a con man, a gambler, someone who would make a profit off other people’s misfortunes. In December, 1941, Harry owns a bar in the Asakusa section called the Happy Paris. He lives in the city he loves and calls his home. With war looming with the United States, though, Harry is still a gaijin, an American whose loyalties are always suspect. All is not well in Harry’s world.
His Japanese lover, Michiko, suspects that he wants to leave Tokyo for the safety of America before war breaks out. Michiko is a communist, a feminist, and also the type of woman who “regarded a double suicide of lovers as a happy ending, but she’d be willing to settle for a murder-suicide if need be.” Worse yet, Michiko suspects that Harry wants to leave with his other lover, the wife of a British diplomat.
Harry’s life is complicated by the fact that the Thought Police follow his every move, his German friend, Willie, asks for Harry’s help to get his Chinese wife out of Japan, a drunken Hajime has left his gun with Harry which could cost both of them their lives, and Ishigami, a veteran of the war in China, is back in town and literally looking for Harry’s head.
Harry has spent his life gathering bits of information that would give him an edge in any situation, and he begins to piece together evidence of the Japanese naval fleet being sent to attack Pearl Harbor. Harry gives a speech to a businessman’s club that praises Japanese actions in Asia and castigates the British and American governments for their meddling in Asian affairs.
This draws the wrath of the American embassy and Harry is informed that as far as they’re concerned, he’s not an American and not to come to them for help. Even his friends, Gen, Tetsu, and Taro must treat Harry like a gaijin at times.
Being a gaijin sometimes works in Harry’s favor. It allows him to act in ways that would be shameful to a Japanese man and he’s often recruited for exploits where he’d be the fall guy if something went wrong.
They can always blame the gaijin, but it allows Harry into parts of society where other Japanese can’t enter. On December 6, 1941, Harry’s world is crumbling around him, and not only does he have to find a way to save his own neck, but he has to decide where his loyalties lie and whom he can trust.
Martin Cruz Smith moves the story back and forth in time, from Harry’s boyhood days in Tokyo to just before the war in 1941. Tokyo comes alive in his prose, especially the Asakusa section. It’s not, however, just his descriptions that help immerse the reader deep in Tokyo, but his understanding of the Japanese mindset and behavior.
Being raised in Japan, Harry knows the ultimate goal for any Japanese man is to die for the glory of the emperor, that the Japanese fervently believe that their “Yamato spirit” will allow them to vanquish any enemy against any odds, and their belief in the invincibility and invulnerability of Japan since it’s never lost a war in its long history.
Harry Niles might be the most immoral protagonist in any Martin Cruz novel, but he’s also the moral compass in this story. It was his most selfless act during the rape of Nanking that has the warrior Ishigami hunting him down in an effort to save face.
Martin Cruz Smith has no sympathy for the politicians and diplomats and he skewers them all, regardless of nationality. He likens them to Harry’s parents, religious zealots who were sure of their role in life even if they were terribly ineffective with their efforts because they didn’t understand the reality of their situation.
Those in Washington, London, and Tokyo were no different, assured of the righteousness of their cause as they set the world on the path to war. They saw the world in the black and white of good versus evil, while everything in Harry’s world was a shade of gray.
December 6 is a novel that succeeds on many levels. It’s an education into the mindset and culture of pre-war Japan. It’s an indictment of those beating the drums of war behind their own self-righteousness.
Best of all, it’s a great story, and the description of Harry’s predicament is peeled back layer by layer, and by the end we’ve come to understand and sympathize with him completely. There’s a bit of Harry in all of us, trying to do the right thing while taking advantage of the situation at the same time.
Martin Cruz Smith has written an entertaining and educational novel, one that drops you with utter precision in the center of Tokyo on December 6, 1941 and takes you for an exhilarating ride. Just hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.