It's been seven-and-a-half years since we were first introduced to intrepid girl sleuth with an international flair, Rei Shimura, in "The Salaryman's Wife". So much has happened to Rei since then: she started her own successful antiques business; deeply loved and lost two men; been kidnapped, nearly stabbed; poisoned; nearly burnt to death in an arson fire; pushed down a flight of subway stairs, thrown out of a speeding car, & nearly drowned in a typhoon-swollen river. She has had her picture in the tabloid press, been deported for breaking into a hotel room; broken an engagement (twice) and lost her lover's baby.
Rei has only aged a year to every two of ours out in reader land, taking her from 27 to 30 years old. Still, with all that, and her twenties now behind her, one would expect this slightly older Rei to be slightly wiser, too, and have an adventure worthy of all her growing life experience. I found "Girl in a Box" disappointing on that score. This installment finds Rei back in Tokyo, posing as the 'perfect' department store employee: a 23-year-old well-bred and immaculately-groomed girl still living at home with her parents. Her mission: to gather intelligence about potential organized crime activity on behalf of the American government. Since it comes as a surprise to no one that the Japanese mafia ('yakuza') has its fingers in every major profit-making concern in Japanese interests both domestic and abroad, the conceit that it's so shocking to the fictitious government agency that employs Rei that they'd go to ridiculous lengths to imperil her life by sending her in to gather intel is the only real mystery here. Rei as a covert ops agent alone strains credulity; allegedly she has been spending 6 months in spy school, but she's not very good at it, as she manages to make frequent blunders as called for by the plot in order to maximize her peril. For all her blundering about on the job, evidently she slips so effortlessly into her cover, aided by a super-glam makeup job and new haircut, that no one ever questions her identity. Rather odd, since her quaint non-native pronunciation & her functional illiteracy in reading written Japanese have always made her stand out and struggle in the past. Rei is just not convincing as either a department store doll or a spy. A large part of Rei's prickly charm is missing in this installment; her complete lack of introspection becomes grating--it was only two books ago that Rei had a miscarriage & ended her relationship with Hugh for good(again), but there's no hint of that water under the bridge. Indeed, there is no connection to any of Rei's past life at all, save one brief appearance each of Aunt Norie and BFF Richard Randall. It's rather instructive that Rei is posing as a 23-year-old here, because Massey has essentially erased most of the last 7 years like they never happened.
The best part of any Rei adventure for me is always the Japanese cultural tidbits. Through Rei's exploits I have learned a great deal about antique Japanese woodwork; kimono, ikebana; comic book culture & the battles 'half-blooded' people fight daily in that society. This book focuses on the modern Japanese obsession with mass consumerism, a facet that is neither flattering to the Japanese people nor particularly interesting. Having spent 6 years in Japan, I can say that Ms. Massey's cultural details and the physical aspects of her locations have been spot-on so far. I never had the funds to shop in the upscale department stores such as the one Rei works in here, but it still fails to engage me on a level of her other books. I do wonder whether the real Mitsutan Department store, an actual company, and the Japanese equivilent of Macy's, has any issues with being raked over the coals as a hotbed of underworld criminal activity? That would be a severe loss of face for them, even if the work is entirely fictional.
As a stand-alone work, "Girl in a Box" is a pleasant-enough outing. But for those of us familiar with Rei's milieu, this effort falls far short of what we are accustomed to seeing. I don't think any of us are ready, either, to see Rei replace Hugh so quickly with her older boss, no matter how attractive he might be. Let's hope that Rei makes good on her plan to quit the spy agency and return to her first love of antiques. The antiques world desperately needs her, but the espionage world is better off if she stays as far away as possible. I'm also gunning for a return to the picture of Rei's estranged lover, Hugh Glendinning. Rei might not want to admit it, but even if those two are often like sushi & Guinness, they belong together.