Expectations can be funny things. They can be high or low, fair or unfair, reasonable or unreasonable, or some combination of more than one. Low expectations can be fatal. Why spend extra time with a student, or try a new author, if you don’t expect anything good to come of it? High expectations can be unfair, as how high to set the bar often has no objective standard. That may well be my problem with S.J. Rozan’s contribution to the Hanzai Japan anthology, “Hanami:” I expected a lot.
“Hanami” features Rozan’s two continuing characters, private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, who are in Washington DC at the request of Lydia’s childhood friend, Mariko. An estranged boyfriend has stolen Mariko’s kitsunabi-dama, a glowing globe in which her kitsunabi—the soul of her kitsune (fox spirit)—resides. Getting it back won’t be easy. The “boyfriend” is a DC power lawyer with aspirations to open a series of automobile racetracks in Asia who figures marrying Mariko—and her contacts—will provide him the access he needs.
My previous experience with Rozan’s work was her novel, In This Rain, an exploration of big city corruption that would have made David Simon proud. With this one standalone as a frame of reference, “Hanami” is a disappointment. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing that shows the hand of a master that I expected based on In This Rain and Rozan’s reputation. The story touches all the bases, has a plot twist, and ends with an edge of supernatural uncertainty. What is lacks is anything that makes it stand out.
Were “Hanami” a novel, I would describe it as written in “best seller” style: everything is explained so there’s no chance of confusing a reader; straightforward, non-idiosyncratic dialog; nothing overtly stylistic to jar a reader out of his or her comfort zone. That sort of thing takes me out of a story, as it reads too much like writing, and not the challenging kind of writing that can hold one’s attention all by itself. (Think James Lee Burke or Declan Hughes or their eponymous demon spawn, Declan Burke.)
There’s nothing wrong with bestseller style: that’s what most people like. (That’s why their bestsellers, duh.) There are no sour grapes attached to that assessment. I’m all for anything that gives readers pleasure and makes money for writers. I understand that I’m the outlier here. To me, it was bland. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, I came back after years away to discover there was no there there.
I’m not one of those who lives to call attention to little things the vast majority of people would not care about nor miss, but when the author goes out of the way to describe something, it’s fair game: The DC Metro runs on steel wheels. Not rubber. (We’ll leave aside the whole “tires vs. wheels” discussion.) That went a ways toward taking me out of the story right there.