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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #38 (September 16-22, 2003), page 11.
Dreaming Pachinko is a dream of a noir hard-boiled thriller
By Isaac Adamson
Trade paperback, 358 pages, $12.95
By Jeff Wenger
The easiest thing in the world is to be dismissive of summer reading, though I suppose Nora Roberts reads like Tolstoy compared to the glossy magazines I actually see poolside and at the beach. On one side there is fluff mixed through with empty intellectual calories, which besides being silly is poorly written. On the other side are "serious artists" producing "serious literary works," like a retelling of Moby-Dick from the perspective of an oar.
In between, to be sure, are well written adventures that engage the mind and the heart, and in that vein it’s a delight to find Isaac Adamson’s Billy Chaka mysteries, the latest of which is Dreaming Pachinko.
Chaka writes for Cleveland-based Youth In Asia magazine and is in the course of fulfilling a minor assignment, interviewing a washed- up pop singer for a where-are-they-now series. Chaka meets Gombei in a shabby pachinko parlor, where an attractive young woman is racked by a seizure. Later, Chaka learns that the woman has died, not from the seizure, but from drowning under suspicious circumstances.
Chaka begins poking around and the mystery gets deeper, the environment gets darker, and the cast gets ever tougher and more exotic.
Adamson is critical of Tokyo as only someone who loves a city can be: "The Aston Martin crawled southwest through a labyrinth of streets canyoned by an endless architectural freakshow in which every conceivable mutation of concrete, glass and steel was fused together into a dense hodgepodge that went on for seemingly ever. Half of the structures looked like they’d been turned inside out. Spindly metal staircases helixed up the buildings’ sides, rusted pipes crawled the walls like ivy, tangles of wires and cables went every which way. Above all the clutter, the morning sky a dirty white haze holding a thin promise of rain."
Adamson strives for hard-boiled territory and Chaka is tough (though not so tough as, say, Stephen Hunter’s Bob Swagger, let alone Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) and quick with a quip and a philosophical nugget. Chaka is a lineal descendant of the noir greats, but he is hip and fast and very modern. Whereas many famous fictional detectives were molded by war, Chaka, like Adamson, is a product of post-war affluence and technological advances and globalization. Chaka is a hero Generation X should love.
Chaka becomes embroiled in the lives of the dead woman’s roommate, a shadowy figure from the powerful Ministry of Construction, an enigmatic man from the past calling himself "Mr. Bojangles," and silent figures who appear unexpectedly in his hotel room. On the periphery are Detective Ihara, Inspector Arajiro, and Sarah in Cleveland, Chaka’s editor at the magazine and a former love interest.
Chaka isn’t so much a sleuth as a researcher who hangs around until he’s trouble for the wrong people, and then events propel him where he needs to be. The plot hums along, the 350ish pages passing quickly, Chaka gathering bits of information, Adamson mixing in historical anecdote, insight into the human condition, and numerous references to Chaka’s wing-tipped shoes. There are several satisfying surprises right up to, and including, the end.
Dreaming Pachinko is a fastball right down the middle, exciting and smart, puckish and suspenseful. Adamson should be read on beach blankets and anywhere else discriminating readers lie, sit, stand, hang, or squat.