Lady Joker, Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura

Perhaps one of the best places to start thinking about this complex and intricately detailed novel is with the title: Lady Joker. It seems to imply whimsy and confusion both at once, for whoever heard of a female Joker in a deck of cards? Yet the name refers to just one of the characters who suffers from great misfortune. Lady is the daughter of Jun’ichi Nunokawa, who sits in the stands of the racetrack with her father, turning her head and flapping her arms as she utters incomprehensible syllables. Her favorite treats are cream buns and fruit-flavored milk, as her mother denies her sugar at home.

”By the way, Handa-San. Let’s give our group a name,” Monoi said, “What do you think of ‘Lady Joker’?”

”What’s that? English?”

”The other day, Nunokawa called his daughter the joker that he had drawn. That’s when it occurred to me. If a joker is something that nobody wants, then what better way to describe the lot of us?” (p. 258)

Poor Seizo Monoi. He comes from a tenant farmer family, and now he owns a pharmacy. But the opinion he holds of his life fills me with sorrow:

I never had a future. I didn’t escape anywhere after all. (p. 159)

Such is the despair and hopelessness of Monoi and the friends he gathers around him: a detective working in Criminal Investigation, a credit union employee, a truck driver, and a lathe operator. All of them are horse racing fans. All of them feel victimized by the rich and successful, and decide that they will make those who have made a fortune suffer. Thus begins their plan for revenge.

Halfway through the novel the perspective shifts from these unfortunate friends to the kidnapping of Kyosuke Shiroyama, the president and CEO of Hinode Beer. We never hear exactly which of the five have taken him to a hideout, fed him fruit-flavored milk and cream buns, or released him with the demand for two billion yen while holding the beer itself hostage. But, we know that he is personally involved with more than one scandal.

The first stems back from 1990, when his niece’s boyfriend was interviewing with Hinode Beer. He had gone through several interviews successfully, until it was determined that he came from a Buraku background. Suddenly, he was told he would not be considered for employment within the company, and a few days after that he died in a car crash. To make matters worse, the young man’s father later committed suicide by stepping in front of a train after submitting a tape documenting Hinode Beer’s discrimination.

The second scandal involves the Okada Association, which is a group of corporate extortionists.

Through the working class, and executives, the police force and media, author Kaoru Takamura brings to her readers a Japan which is complicated and often corrupt. The disenfranchised working class who commit a crime seem no better (or worse) than the corporate executives who commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. Neither Americans, nor Japanese, are above the horrors of discrimination, crime, or the search for power.

From the publisher, SoHo Crime: “Since its Japanese publication in 1997 Kaoru Takamura’s sublimely detailed epic of crime and decline has pushed beyond the stigmas surrounding genre and shattered the Japanese literary glass ceiling. Lady Joker, Volume One is a novel about the sweeping dissatisfaction felt by those left behind by a culture whose new god finds no sacrifice too insignificant, no cost-cutting measure too inhumane, and no individual indispensable. Spurned and ostracized, driven to grief and desperation, the criminals at the heart of this groundbreaking heist story want what society has denied them: belonging. Dignity. Power. Revenge. They will purchase this with fear and outrage and pay whatever it takes.”   

How Have I Not Read Don Winslow’s Books Before?

I’ve been interested in what readers have been turning to in these days of quarantine. Some open the classics, others prefer romance. While translated literature has great favor in my reading preferences, I must admit to a weakness for thrillers. Crime. Suspense. The problem, for me, is finding a reliably good one.

I remember reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum in the late 80’s and being unable to put it down even though we were in the south of France, and I ought to have been more interested in the Mediterranean. I remember reading Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane and thinking it far superior to Mystic River. And there are so many books in between which I don’t remember at all. They seem to tell the same story, over and over.

I bought The Force by Don Winslow for fifty cents at our library’s Used Book Shelf long before the CoronaVirus appeared. In fact, as I perused my Goodreads shelf yesterday, I noticed I’d marked it as “to read” in 2018. After all the emotionally laden work of the Booker International Prize 2020 long list, which was certainly worth reading, it was a great pleasure to me to dive into these books, for the plots and characterization captured my mind and heart.

The Force is about the New York City Police Department’s Task Force, with a hero I will never forget. It was like reading The Godfather; you know some of the characters are dark, and flawed, and deal in illegal territory, but you can’t help loving them anyway. The dialogue alone in this book was remarkable. I saw Manhattan, in all its glory and all its shame, unveiled before me.

The Power of The Dog is about the drug lords in Mexico. And, the DEA. And, the corruption in politics. It is violent, and horrifying, and absolutely mesmerizing in its revelations. When I was a little girl, I thought that doctors healed, teachers taught, and presidents led. I have since had my eyes opened to the true nature of many in these professions. Now I can add law enforcement to my disillusionment, knowing that all of us are living in an often sad, and fallen, world.

I cannot recommend either of these two novels by Don Winslow enough, and now I leave you to begin The Cartel, which is Book 2 in The Power of The Dog trilogy.