Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's Rising Sun

Rising Sun by Michael Crichton
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: January 27th, 1992
Format: Paperback, 339 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lieutenant Peter J. Smith left homicide for the more stable hours and better pay of being a Special Services Officer. He's called in when a diplomat gets drunk or there's a translator needed at the scene of a crime. When he gets the call to come to the scene of a murder that occurred during the Nakamoto Corporation's grand opening of their new Los Angeles headquarters Smith's world gets turned upside down. The first thing that happens in this unusual case is that he is requested to bring Captain John Connor with him, who, while in semi retirement, is fluent in Japanese and has a divisive relationship with them. Up on the 46th floor the victim, Cheryl Lynn Austin, seems to be nothing more then an inconvenience. But as the two cops dig deeper Cheryl had strong ties to the Japanese community and quite probably was a pawn in their business. The one clear thing is that the Japanese will do anything to delay and obfuscate the investigation so that the police reach the decision that is most convenient to them. This is business and to them business is war; casualties are to be expected and they are willing to exert pressure where it is needed, even on the police.  

Rising Sun has the unique distinction of being the first Michael Crichton book I read under my own steam. This wasn't homework. No matter how great Jurassic Park is it still was for school not for me. Therefore reading Rising Sun was something to luxuriate in, so obviously I took it on vacation with me. Though me and reading on vacation oddly don't go together very well. I have several books that have taken long journeys with me but were never picked up once on that trip. Pride and Prejudice went to D.C. and New York, Soul Music went to Ontario, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy went to San Francisco, Thyme in a Flask went to Arkansas, and I never read a page of any of them while on vacation. There's just too much else to do. But there's something about the driving force of the narrative in Rising Sun that made it different then all these other books.

Despite being set during a chilly February in Los Angeles, I will always associate Rising Sun with the heat and humidity of a Wisconsin summer in Door County. We had a three bedroom suite at the Pheasant Park Resort in Sister Bay. I had the dubious honor of having the room with the whirlpool tub. Which was right next to the bed. In a room that didn't have air conditioning. And yes, everyone insisted on using the tub. Let it be known this is a mistake I never repeated. Even if the room hadn't conspired against me to keep me awake all night the book would have anyway. I lay up all night sweating through what little sleepwear I had on being just absorbed by the story. While yes, I had read quite a fair amount of The Cat Who... mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun at this time in my young life, there's nothing like the first time you read a well plotted mystery, and that is exactly what Rising Sun is. Re-reading it all these years later I again devoured it in only two days. But it's amazing how much more insight I have over twenty years later.    

What sets Rising Sun apart from almost every other book Crichton wrote under his own name is that it doesn't hinge on his two most used tropes, advanced technology going awry or medicine. This book can in no way be classified as science fiction and this makes it unique in his canon. In fact it almost feels as if Crichton felt the need to show that he could write a solid mystery without any gimmicks. He wrote a straight up first person narrative that has this noir vibe that I didn't pick up on back in high school. In fact, having recently read Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest you can see the similarities and how Rising Sun would fit perfectly in this hardboiled genre. There's organized forces working against the protagonists, there's the cynical attitude of both Connor and Smith to the Japanese, by the Japanese running a slander campaign against Smith you question his reliability, turning him into an anti-hero. Plus, hardboiled fiction is known for it's unlikable characters, even the murder victim is unsympathetic in this case. Crichton excels at this genre and it's no wonder that Hard Case Crime jumped at the chance to publish his John Lange back catalog. I should probably get to reading those.

Though despite all the good there is about this book with it's mystery and driving narrative there is some severe xenophobia going on here. The xenophobia I think is oddly why the book correlates well with hardboiled fiction because writing of that era wasn't culturally sensitive. So yes, while this book entertains me, an older, wiser me is sitting back and going, damn, that's a little racist don't you think Michael? How about we tone it down a bit, make it less of a one sided argument? And saying the Japanese are more racist then Americans doesn't really help your cause, it just makes it seem even more vindictive. With the rants against the Japanese, as well as a few aimed at the Germans, I felt like I was having a dinner conversation with an embittered elderly relative who survived WWII and was going to take their hatred to the grave. Side note, my great aunt did take her hatred to the grave. So, all in all, I can see why this book got mixed reviews. It's a good story, just maybe a little too polarizing and vindictive.

But there is an ironic truth nestled in the vitriol against the Japanese. Their "Saturday Meetings" in the book where they are deciding what to do about America, well, if the meetings were real or just the imaginings of Crichton, they have turned out to be oddly prescient. Basically Crichton states that the Japanese could see us going to hell in a hand basket, and really, look at the world around us? Unemployment, unrest, looting, riots, protests, murders! I mean, what if there was a time that we could have changed the course of our country and turned a blind eye instead? What if there was something we could have done to not get where we are? As usual, after reading some Crichton you are left with more to think about then when you started and also wondering if perhaps he was some kind of precog...


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