The shopworn cliché “page-turner” describes The Poison Ape, but since I hate clichés, here’s another metaphor. It’s a machine for mass-manufacturing paper cuts on your fingers. That’s how fast you’ll be ripping through the follow-up to Arimasa Osawa’s Shinjuku Shark, second in his series of tough-as-construction-nails detective thrillers set in Tokyo’s equally-tough Shinjuku district. Good thing there are something like ten other books in this series, right?
The first book introduced us to Inspector Samejima, a detective pounding (and kicking, and stomping) the Shinjuku streets. His ongoing mission: to boldly go where no straight-arrow cop has gone before. Cops and thugs alike both fear him — the former because he’s got some thermonuclear-grade dirt on other cops that he uses as an insurance policy against being double-crossed by his own men; the latter because he makes their lives intensely difficult no matter how cozy a “business arrangement” they have. The few friends he has are either as much outsiders as he is — like the cadaverish fellow detective Momoi, or his rock-star girlfriend Sho (whose appearances this time around are regrettably limited).
The opening pages throw us into the middle of Samejima’s most recent stakeout. He busts a toluene (paint-thinner) hustling operation, something that to Japan apparently had the same nasty cachet as the crack epidemic in the States. Osawa gives us the workings of the gang drop in minute and absorbing detail, right up to and including a blood-spattered assault on the dealer that leaves even the police stunned. The killer’s a foreigner, an immigrant who decided to take things into his own hands after his brother ended up addicted to toluene, a drug that gets dismayingly little attention from the cops (except for Samejima, that is). The whole episode’s not organically connected to the main story, but like the pre-credits sequence in a James Bond film it tells us what levels of derring-do we can expect from our hero.
Come to think of it, that opening chapter does mirror a major theme in the book: outsiders coming to Japan to find a better life and encountering misery instead. The outsiders in Ape are Taiwanese and mainland Chinese, struggling against both Japanese prejudice and the criminal machinations of those among them who choose to go crooked. Samejima gets a major first-hand taste of how all this works when he’s reassigned from the toluene-gang beat to a stakeout of an illegal mahjong den run by the local Taiwanese mob. Turns out he’s not the only one who’s been casing this particular pit of iniquity, either: there’s also Rongmin Guo, a Taiwanese cop with some nasty paramilitary-derived martial arts moves.
Guo and Samejima wind up hitting it off — something which comes as a surprise to both of them, but it makes sense given their status as outsiders. Samejima’s one in his own country and profession; Guo’s a stranger off his home turf, chasing someone far more dangerous than any run-of-the-mill gangster. He is Du Yuan, the “Poison Ape” of the title, a hitman with a lethal finishing blow straight out of Tony Jaa’s playbook. The Ape’s escaped to Japan, bringing with him a cache of weapons and a murderous grudge that he will fulfill at all costs, even if it means igniting all-out gang war in Tokyo.
Osawa doesn’t only give us Guo and Samejima inching their way towards their quarry, but splits time between them and two other characters. One is Nami, a Chinese immigrant toughing it out in a Kabukicho “cabaret club”, where sexual favors offered by the hostesses are disguised by applying a 500% markup on the drinks. It’s dispiriting work, and the only consolation she has is a tentative friendship with one of the bartenders, another Chinese-speaking immigrant named Yang. Large and silent, he draws Nami’s attention just by his mere presence: having another fellow stranger nearby makes her problems seem that much more bearable. Then one night he kills the club’s boss — almost too casually to make it seem like retaliation for suffering one beating after another at the man’s hands — and Nami offers him help.
Nami has, of course, no idea that Yang is Du Yuan — but even once she does know, it only seems to galvanize the both of them all the more. Horrific as it is for her to watch Yang at work, there’s a certain nasty frisson to it as well: he’s able to do all the things to yakuza lowlifes that most people only dream about. It all comes at a huge cost, of course: not just the fact that Yang is a hunted killer, but that his entire life has narrowed down to finding and doing away with a man who betrayed him. Nami’s offers of solace may not amount to much when he’s facing about three different kinds of death sentences, including the possibility that he might drop dead at any moment from a case of appendicitis that’s so acute it’s gnawing a veritable hole in its gut. The irony of the situation forms a constant undertone for all that goes on: this super-assassin isn’t a human Terminator, but a man wounded in both body and soul who’s only got just enough life left in him to kill.
All the things that grabbed me about Osawa’s first Shark are on display in Ape. Most English-speaking audiences know little or nothing about the fascinatingly grimy night life of Shinjuku (or Tokyo, or Japan), and Osawa spells out the details in plain language. Toluene addiction rots the gums. Hostess club girls worry about cavities getting infected after oral sex. It’s the same careful enumeration of little details that Georges Simenon used in his own hybrid mystery novels — but Simenon was both lean and elegant, and with Osawa there were times when I wanted a bit more meat to go with the veg, as it were. The passage where Nami’s past is recounted directly to the reader comes off too much like a case report, not the sad story of someone uncomfortable both abroad and at home. For all I know the prose was probably even blunter in the original Japanese, a language whose literary tropes revolve around sparseness to begin with.
All told, Shark isn’t a book to linger over, nor are you meant to. It’s as artless and blunt as a police report, but exerts the same cold-blooded allure as one — and reads so fast you won’t need a bookmark.