The Barnes & Noble Review
No one is better than Martin Cruz Smith (Rose, Red Square, Gorky Park) at evoking the sights, sounds, and peculiar textures of lives lived in extraordinary times and places. With December 6, Smith moves from the contemporary Cuban setting of his previous novel, Havana Bay, to Tokyo City in 1945, giving us a suspenseful, minutely detailed account of the days preceding -- and immediately following -- the attack on Pearl Harbor.
His vehicle for this hypnotic ride is gambler, con man, and suspected collaborator Harry Niles, who grew up on the streets of Tokyo and is, in many respects, more Japanese than American. Harry runs a popular expatriate bar called The Happy Paris and juggles romantic relationships with the wife of the British ambassador and a tempestuous former geisha named Michiko. Like many of his fellow Americans, he's convinced that war is imminent and is determined to catch the last flight out of Japan before hostilities commence. His plans for escape face many obstacles, including the obsessive scrutiny of two zealous agents from Tokyo's "Thought Police" and a crazed modern samurai with a long-standing grudge against Harry that can only be satisfied by bloodshed. All of this is complicated by Harry's penchant for high-stakes gambling and by his own peculiar ethical code -- a code that leads him into a dangerous shell game with Japanese Naval Intelligence and causes him to risk his life protecting friends, lovers, and even strangers.
Like all really good fiction, December 6 works on a number of levels: as a thriller; as a multilayered portrait of a complex, contradictory figure; as a meditation on Japanese culture, character, and beliefs; and as a cogent historical analysis of Japan's decision to initiate a war it could not possibly win. The result is a striking, absolutely authentic novel that illuminates one of the critical moments of the 20th century and confirms Smith's position among the most stylish and intelligent American storytellers. Bill Sheehan
The New Yorker
Smith's new thriller is set in Tokyo in the last days of 1941, just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor; its central character, the American Harry Niles, grew up in Japan, where his missionary parents were preaching the Word. Harry isn't very holy, however: he owns a night club called the Happy Paris, dabbles in assorted short cons, and spends much of his time with various mistresses, including the possibly murderous Michiko, the jukebox girl at the Happy Paris. As the rumors of war heat up, Harry finds that he is the victim of his own equivocal identity: Americans worry that he has become too Japanese, and the Japanese suspect him of being a spy. Smith's plot is more than slightly reminiscent of "Casablanca," and the spectre of the Second World War seems, at this distance, almost quaint, but the characters are so well drawn and the local color so colorful that these quibbles hardly interfere with the novel's pleasures.
This novel, set in Japan, takes place over the course of December 6-8, 1941. Harry Nile is technically a U.S. citizen, but he grew up in Tokyo under the care of a Japanese nursemaid while his missionary parents tried to convert the natives to Christianity. Harry, the gaijin or foreigner, was always the bad guy, always the target in kids' fantasy games and at school, yet he established local ties and contacts as a result. He becomes the antithesis of his parents: a hard-drinking, swearing, smoking ladies man who runs a bar. Harry knows that something is going to break up the peace negotiations between the United States and Japan, so he is angling for a seat on the last plane out of Tokyo, even though it means leaving behind his live-in girl friend, his bar, and the only life he knows. As his plans unravel, he makes uncharacteristic gestures of kindness, generosity, and selflessness, even warning the U.S. ambassador of the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbor. The unabridged version, well read by L.J. Ganser, provides a wealth of detail about Japanese culture and customs. Long passages fill out the characters and provide motivation. The abridged version, well read by John Slattery, accurately presents the central themes of the story. Harry's actions seem somewhat inconsistent without the background material, but the tale retains its suspense. Both versions are recommended for public libraries.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Univ. of Rhode Island, Providence Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In early December, 1941, Harry Niles runs his nightclub, Happy Paris, in Tokyo's Asakuza district, keeps a mistress, and makes plans to escape from Japan with the British ambassador's wife. His departure is complicated by the Japanese, who consider him a spy and arrest him several times; the British and Americans, who deny him any help; and a Japanese soldier who wants him dead. He manages to elude most of his problems, narrowly escaping only to discover that he is trapped in Japan on December 7. Smith vividly conjures up the beauty of the country and the ugliness in people. Along with clear descriptions of locations, he creates realistic pictures of a distinct time and place. While the protagonist is the most fully developed, the secondary characters, as well as those who play far lesser roles, quickly take on distinct personalities and attributes. The book has flashbacks of Niles growing up in Japan as a mistreated and neglected son of American missionaries. As the plot progresses, his background helps to explain his attitude toward Japan, the imminent war, his relationships with two lovers, and his love of gambling against the odds. Since the story takes place over three days, the events move quickly and the plot is tightly woven together. The result is a historical thriller brimming with action, odd characters, and an ending well worth the read.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
War-ready Japan becomes as nostalgically wonderful as the doomed central Europe of Alan Furst in the latest masterwork from the author of Gorky Park. The gripping pleasure that put Smith (Havana Bay, 1999, etc.) at the top of Cold War-era thriller lists was his detailed and utterly believable revelation of Moscow as a weary city full of real people. Here, it's Tokyo-on December 6, 1941. Smith's guide to the tinderbox megalopolis is Harry Niles, an American supposedly in the care of his drunken uncle (the only iffy premise) while his missionary parents beat the bushes for potential Baptists. As a gaijin-foreigner-Harry is the permanent victim of his schoolboy chums in their re-creations of samurai sagas. The games may be imaginary, but the beatings are real, and Harry gains legendary survival skills along with the language and cultural understanding of a native. December 6 finds him the owner of Happy Paris, a nightclub featuring the d.j. skills of Michiko, a Modern Girl as thoroughly independent and wily as the cynical Harry. The pair's prickly relationship is complicated by Harry's occasional wanderings with the code-breaking wife of a fatuous British peer and by the mortally frightening news that Colonel Ishigami, whom Harry caused to lose face as Ishigami was removing heads in Manchuria, is in town and looking for him. He's not alone. Harry's tormenting childhood friends have grown up, one of them making it into the inner circle of Admiral Yamamoto, and they too appear to have plans for Harry, whose own fate may narrow down to getting out of Tokyo before the balloon goes up. At the heart of Harry's problems is the little bit of bogus intelligence he's slipped into the militarymachinery in an effort to forestall the war that would inevitably obliterate the adopted country he loves so passionately. Intelligent, jazzy, romantic, unbelievably tense, completely absorbing. Worth the wait.
From the Publisher
The Denver Post [December 6] packs plenty of suspense....A page-turning thriller....A solid piece of entertainment and an undeniably brilliant display of the author's literary genius.
Read an Excerpt
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Letter from Tokyo
JAPAN APPEARS CALM AT BRINK OF WAR
British Protest "Defeatist Speech" by American
By Al DeGeorge
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
TOKYO, DEC. 5 While last-minute negotiations to avert war between the United States and Japan approached their deadline in Washington, the average citizen of Tokyo basked in unusually pleasant December weather. This month is traditionally given to New Year's preparations and 1941 is no exception. Residents are sprucing up their houses, restuffing quilts and setting out new tatamis, the grass mats that cover the floor of every Japanese home. When Tokyoites meet, they discuss not matters of state but how, despite food rationing, to secure the oranges and lobsters that no New Year's celebration would be complete without. Even decorative pine boughs are in short supply, since the American embargo on oil has put most civilian trucks on blocks. One way or another, residents find ingenious solutions to problems caused by the embargo's sweeping ban on everything from steel and rubber to aviation fuel. In the case of oil, most taxis now run on charcoal burned by a stove in the trunk. Cars may not have the old oomph, but passengers in Tokyo have learned to be patient.
In a country where the emperor is worshiped, there is no doubt about Japan's position in the negotiations, that Japan has fairly won China and deserves to have the embargo lifted. The American position, that Japan must withdraw its troops first, is considered hypocritical or misguided. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson are regarded here as unfriendly, but the Japanese people have great faith in President Franklin Roosevelt as a more sympathetic ear. A Ginza noodle vendor gave his appraisal of the high-level stalemate: "It is the same with all negotiations. At the last moment, resolution!"
In fact, one of the most anticipated events is the release of the censor's list of new films from Hollywood. There is no embargo on American movies. They fill the theaters, and stars like Bette Davis and Cary Grant grace the covers of fan magazines here. The older generation may sit still for Kabuki, but the younger set is wild for the silver screen.
The only frayed nerves visible showed in a speech delivered today at the Chrysanthemum Club, the meeting place for Tokyo's banking and industrial elite. American businessman Harry Niles declared that Japan had just as much right to interfere in China as America did to "send the marines into Mexico or Cuba." Niles described the American embargo as an effort to "starve the hardworking people of Japan." He also attacked Great Britain for "sucking the life's blood of half the world and calling it a Christian duty."
British Embassy First Secretary Sir Arnold Beechum said that Niles's words were "out-and-out defeatist. The French and the Danes fell through the treasonous activities of collaborationists just like Niles. We are seriously considering a protest to the American embassy over the activities of their national." The American embassy refused to comment, although one official suggested that Niles had stood outside embassy control for a long time. The official, who preferred anonymity, said the club's choice of Niles as its speaker was telling. "It's a strong suggestion of Japanese impatience with the talks in Washington, an ominous indication, I'm afraid."
Otherwise, the city went about its business in its usual brisk fashion, squirreling away treats for the New Year, perhaps lighting an extra stick of incense to pray with, but apparently confident that no final rupture will break Japan's amiable relationship with the United States.
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