Set in 1980 Tokyo, this debut novel preoccupies itself with the theme of identity born of mixed heritage. At the the plot level, it's a fairly effective mystery about an American woman who goes missing and the sad sack Japanese detective who's assigned her case. The woman is Lisa Countryman, who is ostensibly in Tokyo to research the sex economy for her PhD thesis. She was born in Japan, but was adopted as a baby by a black U.S. military family, and the real impetus for her trip is to locate her birth mother. When her sister in the U.S. eventually calls the embassy for help in locating her, the case is assigned to Tom Hurley. He's a somewhat dissolute 30something consular officer who's mostly interested in bedding the wife of a CIA officer, but is also conflicted about his own mixed heritage. Hurley passes the case on to Kenzo Ota, a lonely, ineffectual, middle-aged police detective invisible to his peers and society in general.
For Ota, the case is an opportunity to get away from his window office (a position of shame in the Japanese workplace at the time) and win some respect from his colleagues. Ota's investigation alternates with flashbacks to Lisa's arrival in Japan, as she drifts from research into bar hostessing, and hires a detective of her own to track down her mother. Meanwhile, a third subplot revolves around Hurley's affair with the CIA wife, Julia, who has somehow heard about the missing Lisa and takes a mysterious interest in the case. There's also a running subplot about Ota's personal life, which includes an encounter with his ex-wife and her son (who may be his), and a budding romance. This is a lot of plot to juggle, and Lee mostly pulls it off, although the book probably could have been much improved by excising or greatly diminishing the Hurley material. The best parts of the book are those that follow Lisa as she navigates the world of fly-by-night English schools and various levels of hostess bars, and those showing the forlorn Ota struggling for redemption. He's the embodiment of one aspect of the Japanese national psyche, the sense that life is suffering and sorrow, and that moments of happiness are the exception rather than the rule.
What's also quite good about the book is the portrait of Japan, although one has to remember that it is set some 25 years in the past (the Iran hostage crisis is a running background element). It's a time when foreigners were present in Tokyo in much lesser numbers than now but Western cultural influence is starting to assert itself. Against all this, the central theme of identity is brought ought through the Japanese preoccupation with racial distinctions and the conflicts deep within many of the characters about themselves. Lee's prose is quite fluid and if the book is guilty of anything, it's of trying to cram in a bit too much. Still, I will certainly keep an eye out for his next book.