Lustbader's plot loses out to jet-lag
THE KAISHO, by Eric Lustbader (HarperCollins, $195).
ERIC Lustbader now writes just like an old chef cooks shortly before retirement. He knows what is necessary for a great creation, has certainly produced them in a long and illustrious past and knows just what spices to add, and in what quantity.
The trouble is that the process becomes too automatic and lacks that vital element necessary to turn a list of ingredients into more than the sum of its parts. The sparkle disappears.
Thriller writers eventually use a well-tried and tested formula to churn out one pot-boiler after another to jaded readers.
As is the case with this novel, cash-laden authors also discover the joys of all-expenses-paid research, and collect a mass of data on places and people which is filed away for future reference.
When the creative juices are flowing this data merely informs writing. The necessity of meeting a publisher's deadline, however, increases the possibility of whole chunks of it emerging as thinly-veiled location setting.
The Kaisho displays many of these weary faults. As the action sways dizzily from Japan to Italy to the United States and back, the readers are given time out, especially in Venice, to learn more than they ever wanted to know about past events and architecture.
Even the characters, whose lives seem constantly to hang in the balance, occasionally deem it necessary to regale each other with history and geography lessons.
Being a craftsman, however, Lustbader still manages to cobble together enough of a plot to sustain the storyline. He has resurrected his white knight hero Nicholas Linnear, this time as head of an American-Japanese corporation threatened by American protectionist legislation and an antagonistic senator.
Nicholas disappears to Venice to repay an old debt of his father's and becomes embroiled with Mikio Okami - the Kaisho, the boss of all bosses of the underworld.
The mafia and the yakuza are implicated in a worldwide conspiracy with links that stretch as far as the White House.
The hors-d'oeuvre is tasty enough with enough graphic sex and ritual murders in the first chapter to fill a mini-series. Things get fuzzy after that.
The main protagonists seem to have mystical powers gleaned from martial art hybrids, and the battle between the dark and the light is painted too superficially to be of any interest. Some of the scenes border on the comedic.
The book has a basic identity crisis. It cannot decide whether it is about industrial espionage, political intrigue or metaphysical metaphor. By trying to be all three, it fails to be anything of any substance.
The plot meanders at times and only occasionally does the author's undoubted ability struggle to the surface, only to be drowned in a flood of weak characterisation.
For local readers there is an interesting Hongkong connection.
The territory is used as an illegal manufacturing base for components of a computer, the design of which the Americans claim was stolen from them.
Lustbader must have had a quick stop-over, as the descriptions of the territory only stretch to a couple of paragraphs.
The author has carved out quite a niche for himself in the Asian thriller market. His previous successes have been worthy of the praise lavished on him by Western reviewers generally in awe of any writer who has even a vague understanding of Eastern cultures while being recognisably one of their own.
One more effort such as this, and he will probably be able to forget publisher's deadlines and tiresome research trips.