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Special Prisoner: A Novel

Special Prisoner: A Novel

4.6 6
by Jim Lehrer

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BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Jim Lehrer's Tension City.

Following the enormous success of his two bestselling previous novels, White Widow and Purple Dots, Jim Lehrer takes on a new and controversial subject in this ambitious story about an Ameri-can soldier who, many years after the fact, is forced to relive his harrowing experience


BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Jim Lehrer's Tension City.

Following the enormous success of his two bestselling previous novels, White Widow and Purple Dots, Jim Lehrer takes on a new and controversial subject in this ambitious story about an Ameri-can soldier who, many years after the fact, is forced to relive his harrowing experience in the Second World War.
         The Special Prisoner takes its title from the designation the Japanese government gave U.S. airmen held prisoner during World War II--an indication of the severity with which these foreign devils responsible for bombing Japanese cities were to be treated. John Quincy Watson was a skilled young pilot flying B-29s over Japan when he was shot down and taken prisoner in 1945. Fifty years later, now a prominent religious figure nearing retirement, Bishop Watson believes he has long since overcome the excruciating memories of his months as a POW. But a chance sighting of the now equally elderly Japanese officer who repeatedly tortured him instantly transports the Bishop back to that unendurable time, and he finds himself overwhelmed by an un-controllable desire for vengeance. The result for Watson is both a vivid return to the horrors of his past and the triggering of a new series of events that are also horrific--and tragic.
        Engaging and emotionally poignant, The Special Prisoner delves into the complicated issue of war guilt and forgiveness, starkly portrayed in the characters of an officer from a country that refuses to admit any wrongdoing and a clergyman who is committed to a belief that to forgive is divine. This is new and controversial territory for Lehrer, and he treats it with passion and respect, while writing in the highly readable, engaging style that is his trademark. This fascinating story of what's fair in war--and what's fair afterward--is a dramatic new novel from the veteran Washington author and newscaster.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
From best-selling author Lehrer comes a work about an American soldier's harrowing wartime experience in Japan.
Iris Chang
Riveting...I couldn't put this book down! The Special Prisoner delves into the full complexity of human evil and revenge.
Stephen E. Ambrose
[A] tribute to the men who endured and prevailed over the worst existence imaginable.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As in his previous novel, White Widow, the plot of newscaster-writer Lehrer's newest book turns on a chance encounter. In this case the pivotal meeting is between retired Methodist Bishop John Quincy Watson of San Antonio, Tex., an elderly ex-B-29 pilot and POW, and a Japanese businessman in whose eyes Watson sees the stare of the interrogator who tortured him. Incredulous that his old nemesis could have survived, Watson nevertheless discovers that the stranger has checked into a San Diego hotel under the interrogator's last name, and he decides to confront him. Mr. Tashimoto, however, denies he is the former camp official his prisoners nicknamed "the Hyena" because of his sadistic laugh. With this tension-filled standoff underway, Lehrer suspensefully alternates between Watson's harrowing memories of WWII and his present-day cat-and-mouse interrogation with the roles reversed. The first half of the narrative is a provocative, at times wrenching, dramatization of racism, war crimes and revenge--with right not necessarily on Watson's side--but the second is deprived of much of its drive when Watson tragically loses control of the situation and is brought to trial for his violent behavior. Although the ending does not satisfactorily resolve the moral ambiguity of its tantalizing premise, Lehrer's novel successfully illuminates still-sensitive issues for both the U.S. and Japan. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The title of Lehrer's 14th book, a harrowing novel of redemption and revenge, refers to the designation the Japanese gave to captured U.S. airmen, for whom they reserved the most horrific torture. In alternating chapters, the first half of the novel ricochets between John Quincy Watson's World War II experiences as a B-29 bomber pilot and (mostly) Japanese POW and his present-day encounter--he is a retired Methodist bishop--with the man he knew as his Japanese torturer, Tashimoto. The second part of the novel, a trial, condemns both the brutality of Japanese treatment of POWs and the U.S. bombing attacks on Japan, along with lingering U.S. racism against the Japanese. While the lean prose and fast pace mean that some of the men in the prison camp are too sketchily drawn for us to care about them, both Watson and his friend Henry Howell are fully realized. Lehrer offers no easy answers in this gripping, sorrowful story that moves well beyond the satire that characterizes his earlier works. Recommended, especially where World War II novels are popular. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00; for an interview with Lehrer, see p. 199.--Ed.]--Francine Fialkoff, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Sean Kevin Fitzpatrick
The title refers to a shot-down American airman who was taken prisoner during World War II. John Philip Watson endured the horrors of torture and humiliation, and this concise powerhouse of a novel begins with Watson's sixty-second year, during which he has retired as the Methodist bishop of San Antonio. His tightly reconstructed life begins to unwind, though, as he sees his primary torturer, known as "The Hyena," while changing planes in Dallas. Lehrer is a newsman, novelist and arguably one of the best news anchors on television. His news training gives him a fine instinct for story and an ability to edit out anything that does not advance it. Lehrer provides us with a concentrated dose of a world we have never known but which we now see with blinding brightness. This is a fast and moving read with the texture of authenticity.
Kirkus Reviews
A near-miss about man's inhumanity to man—in war and then in peace. He's become the much respected, almost revered, now retired Bishop Quincy Watson of Boston, but 50 years ago he flew a B29 that rained firebombs on Tokyo until the Japanese shot him down. Though he survived the crash, Quincy spent much of the time that followed wishing he hadn't. Fliers, especially bomber pilots, were viewed with maximum hostility by their captors. Quincy found himself labeled a `special prisoner,` a category the Japanese reserved for war criminals. Degraded, tortured, threatened daily with death and worse, he was one of a minuscule number of special prisoners who managed to live through the experience. At the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, on an otherwise ordinary day, his glance happens to connect with someone else's. Seconds later, that man is lost in the airport crowd, but Quincy is certain he's recognized the eyes (`two dark brown lasers`) belonging to his former chief tormentor, Japanese Lieutenant Tashimoto. Quincy goes on a hunt, traces his prey to a hotel in San Diego, and confronts the man in his room. Tashimoto denies everything he's accused of, insists the two have never met and that during the war the US, not Japan, behaved like an outlaw nation. Quincy calls him a liar on all counts. Hate regenerated is as implacable as ever. It explodes into sudden violence, the long-term ramifications of which are tragic and embittering. PBS news anchor Lehrer, now a veteran novelist (Purple Dots, 1998, etc.), attempts a morality tale here. The result, unfortunately, is frustratingly elusive. The POW scenes are riveting, but the plotting, particularly the denouement, seems wrenched to fit a fixedidea,making the tale hard to believe and the seeming morality hard to track.Author tour

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Read an Excerpt

Bishop John Quincy Watson, a man of God and grace, was yanked back into his ordeal of hate and horror by a pair of eyes.

They flashed at him from out of the crowd in a concourse at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport-DFW as it was known by those who knew airports. He stopped with a jolt and turned around. He fixed his sights on the backs of people walking past.

None of the backs looked familiar.

He walked toward Gate 32A, where he was to board a flight to Washington's National Airport.

The bishop hadn't seen the face, only the eyes.

Whose were they?

Then he knew. It came to him cleanly, clearly, and absolutely. The eyes were those of a man he knew fifty years ago as "the Hyena." He knew it with a crushing certainty that was as unshakable as John Quincy Watson's faith in the Almighty.

For reasons of exercise and pride, the bishop seldom used the motorized carts provided at airports for the old and lame, choosing instead to make his way slowly on his own with his ivory-headed cane. He was seventy-one years old and retired from his post as the Methodist bishop of San Antonio, Texas, but he did not see himself as an old man. Not yet. He was still active, traveling extensively around the world as a guest lecturer and preacher. He was on his way now, in fact, to address an ecumenical prayer breakfast at a large Methodist church in one of Washington's Virginia suburbs.

Now he did raise a hand to hail one of the carts, which fortunately had no other passengers. He told the young man driving that he was in a terrific hurry to get to the opposite end of the concourse.

They beeped their way through the crowd of people and their various rolling suitcases. "Right here, son," said the bishop to the cart driver after several minutes. "Let me off right here, please."

There he was, the man with the eyes. It was him-his height and build, his bearing and presence. There he was handing his boarding pass to a female flight attendant at the grate. There was the man John Quincy Watson would never, ever forget. Watson walked as fast as he could, but the man was down the boarding corridor and out of sight by the time the slow-moving bishop reached the flight attendant. He ignored the other passengers in line and went right up and asked, "Was that man's name Tashimoto?"

The flight attendant, a forty-ish woman with short brown hair, looked at him as if he were a potential bomber or masher. But after a second or two of further inspection she must have concluded he was safe because she looked down at the stack of tickets on the stand in front of her. "Yes, that's what it says
on the ticket-T-a-s-h-i-m-o-t-o ' " she said. "Now, if you'll
move out the way, sir, so we can resume boarding?"

Bishop Watson said, "Where is this plane going, please?"

"To San Diego," she said, pointing to an electric sign near the door that said just that.

"I'd like a ticket, please."

"We're already overbooked, but see the agent at the counter.)

The agent confirmed that there were no seats on the plane, and Watson couldn't convince him or the attendant at the gate to let him on for just a few minutes to simply look at the passengers. He told them that he saw a man board whom he had known many years ago.

Against the rules, they said. Permission denied.

In a few minutes the boarding door was closed. Bishop Watson stayed right there and watched through the large plate-glass window as the plane-he recognized it as a Boeing 757-backed out from the gate. Now and then he had wondered what it would be like to fly one of these jetliners compared with Big Red, his B-29, and the other propeller planes he had flown in World War 11. But it was only an occasional wonder. In fifty years he had never even entered the cockpit of any kind of airplane.

By the time he started walking again toward Gate 32A, he realized that it was already ten minutes past the departure time of his flight.

It didn't matter. The Hyena was alive! The little Jap was here in America, on a plane for San Diego!

Bishop Watson felt shame for thinking of the Hyena as a Jap. But it was an unavoidable reflex. For the bishop, this man could never be anything but a Jap.

What People are Saying About This

Iris Chang
Riveting...I couldn't put this book down! The Special Prisoner delves into the full complexity of human evil and revenge.
—Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking
Tom Brokaw
A provocative and haunting novel in which the past and present intersect in chilling fashion.
Stephen E. Ambrose
This account of an American prisoner of war in Japanese hands rings with truth. Lehrer, himself a marine, has captured the reality of what it was like. The brutality, the sadism, the horror and, above all else, the triumph of will that got the prisoners through the experience are all here. Lehrer's book is honest, factual, and a tribute to the men who endured and prevailed over the worst existence imaginable.

Meet the Author

Jim Lehrer is the anchor and executive editor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and the author of numerous novels, nonfiction books, and plays. He was a 1999 recipient of a National Humanities Medal for his journalism and writing. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Brief Biography

Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth:
May 19, 1934
Place of Birth:
Wichita, Kansas
A.A., Victoria College; B.J., University of Missouri, 1956

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The Special Prisoner 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the first book by Jim Lehrer that I read and I have since bought all of his other books. This book grabs you on page one and doesn't let go until you close the book. A great read by a great author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
All Jim Lehrer novels are incredible, and this one is no different at all. Set in a Japanese past and American present, Lehrer takes you from one time to the other with each passing chapter and then blends them together in the end. Lehrer tale of revenge and raw emotions manages to spring surprises on you when you don't even expect them. I read this book in two days, cause I couldn't put it down. I'm not kidding either...when I stopped reading to sleep, I couldn't wait to pick the book back up again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explains the aftermath of the WWII, and how it grew stronger within the characters lives. I believe this book really explains the soldiers point of view. As a woman, I can understand my grandfather experience in WWII and my uncle's experience in the Korean War. This author has written a profound book!! Soldiers need to get better treatment and respect!!!!!!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
WOW...I just completed reading THE SPECIAL PRISONER and can't get it out of my mind. I am a relatively slow reader but finished this book in one night. The subject matter is a deviation from what I normally read but I am a fan of Jim Lehrer. In my opinion, this is his best.