Countdown to Osaka

Written by Joe Hefferon — Crime fiction set in Japan, Korea and other counties of the Far East is gaining in popularity, and even Western authors are trying their hand at probing these cultures’ perplexities. Joe Hefferon’s latest novel is an exciting addition to the mix. His main characters – female yakuza assassin Koi and French illegal gun merchant Le Sauvage – are larger-than-life, but such interesting characters that you gladly accept the hyperbole surrounding their skills in martial arts and criminal strategy.

In the beginning of the story, Koi is disillusioned with life in the organised crime syndicate to which she belongs and tired of killing at its behest. She wants out. But usually there is no out if you are yakuza. In a satisfying hero’s journey move, her mentor in the organisation, Hayato, gives her one last mission. She must kill Le Sauvage and stop his plan to steal a fortune in Japanese gold that has been missing since the fall of the Shoguns 150 years ago. Koi knows if she fails Hayato will kill her. Of course, Le Sauvage and his heavy guard of former French Foreign Legionnaires and special operations soldiers may beat him to it. If she succeeds, she can have her freedom. So he says.

Koi is a tough cookie on the outside, though another dimension of her is revealed through her devotion to her mother, dying in an Osaka hospital. It is her mother’s wish that she free herself from the yakuza, which adds to Koi’s determination.

Koi’s mother had many struggles raising her half-European daughter, without benefit of husband or father for Koi. This situation, along with innumberable others, is influenced by the social and cultural mores of Japan. Although I am not an expert on Japanese culture, these descriptions and sometimes subtle reflections of what is and is not possible in daily behaviour ring true. Author Joe Hefferon credits two Japanese women with giving him the cultural and linguistic insights that create that verisimilitude.

Le Sauvage’s network soon realises an Asian woman is after him, but Koi manages to outwit them for a while, including seeking refuge in the apartment of a theatre-loving gay bartender in Nice, Le Sauvage’s home turf. Hefferon includes numerous effective comic touches in this encounter, and you may regret when it races to a close. Many of his secondary characters – including members of the Frenchman’s gang and the dissolute British scholar of Asian literature, Boris Nethercote – are interesting in their own right and not just in place to fill out a scene.

While Le Sauvage’s true name is unknown to the authorities, including a dogged Interpol inspector who lags several steps behind the action, you’ll soon work out who he is. You’ll probably also guess what one of the book’s key twists is before it’s revealed about halfway through the story, turning everything upside down. These upheavals are not to the liking of all the characters, and the criminal’s perpetual problem of whom to trust becomes even trickier than usual.

The story moves back and forth from Saigon to France to Osaka, and while multi-time-zone jet-setting is sometimes not especially believable, Koi and the yakuza on one hand and Le Sauvage and his team on the other have almost unlimited funds, keeping the travel at least reasonably plausible.

The clues to where the Japanese gold may have been hidden are scattered. Some aresecreted in the poems accompanying a large painting, some in a set of obscure documents handed down through the generations, and some in a quite unexpected place. Boris’s job is to help the criminals interpret these clues in a way that leads to a specific location. Puzzle elements are a staple of mystery fiction, and the way the team puts that aspect of the story together is complicated and lost me a couple of times, but nevertheless great fun. You find yourself rooting for them, despite the wake of bloodshed they leave wherever they go.

Hefferon has deployed the tropes of crime and mystery fiction with exceeding skill here, creating characters to believe in and a crackerjack plot, but don’t be lulled into thinking you know how it will all end.

Also see Michael Pronko’s The Moving Blade or for a range of crime fiction translated from Japanese click here.

New Pulp Press
Print/Kindle
£3.88

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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