(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Beginning with Gorky Park (1981), Martin Cruz Smith has been known for writing thrillers that are both highly entertaining and intelligent. Smith is expert at delineating both contemporary and historical times and settings and usually provides a bit more character depth than such comparable practitioners as Ken Follett. The sophistication of his novels has led to his being called “the John le Carré of thriller writers.” Smith’sStallion Gate (1986) is a look at the Manhattan Project that contributed to the end of World War II. With December 6, he turns to the beginning of that conflict and events surrounding the launch of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Harry Niles’s parents came to Japan as missionaries when he was very young, and except for a brief period back in the United States, he has lived in Japan ever since. Like Smith’s best works, December 6 is a character study, showing how Niles manages to fit into Japanese society, to a degree, while retaining an essential American personality. Like the hero of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), however, Harry is trapped between two ways of life and can live completely comfortably in neither.

Harry’s role as existential outsider is established at the beginning when Smith shows the young Harry playing with Japanese boys whose idea of a good time is to chase him and knock him down. For most ofDecember 6, Smith’s method is to alternate chapters depicting Harry’s childhood in the 1920’s with scenes from December 6-8, 1941. When the opening chase leads Harry to seek refuge in a peep show in the Asakusa quarter, he finds his true milieu. This seedy yet glamorous, exotic and erotic neighborhood of bars, theaters, dancing girls, artists, prostitutes, and thieves is the center of the novel, becoming as much a distinctive character as Harry himself.

Without Asakusa, there would be no Harry Niles. Oharu, a dancer in the peep show, takes pity on the gaijin (foreigner), and eleven-year-old Harry is hired to run errands. Also hired at Harry’s insistence is Gen, who has been one of his tormentors but becomes his best friend. That Harry wants to be Gen’s friend but will always be seen as different is established in this opening chapter. Harry’s trust in Gen will have tragic consequences in 1941.

The flashbacks are dominated by Harry’s love for the teenaged Oharu and by his relationship with the artist Kato, who becomes his mentor, teaching him about the world of Asakusa. Kato is fascinated that “a gaijin could speak like a Japanese, eat like a Japanese, and shoplift cigarettes.” That the boy is a missionary’s son only heightens Kato’s pleasure in Harry’s exploits. Harry is able to roam the Asakusa with Oharu, Kato, and Gen because his parents are chasing converts in the countryside and he is in the custody of Orin Niles, his neglectful, drunken uncle. This gaudy paradise begins unraveling, however, when Harry sees Oharu in a pornographic pose for Kato.

The thirty-year-old Harry lives with Michiko Funabashi, who plays records to entertain the customers in the Happy Paris, the club owned by Harry. She also dances alluringly to tunes by such jazz musicians as Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Michiko, twenty, is a communist and feminist but nevertheless a romantic and a devoted reader of Voguemagazine. An enigmatic figure and minor Tokyo celebrity, she is as much a mystery to Harry as to anyone else: “What frightened Harry was that he knew Michiko regarded a double suicide of lovers as a happy ending, but she’d be willing to settle for a murder-suicide if need be.” Harry observes that when male radicals are imprisoned, they turn to religion and the emperor, while women like Michiko hang themselves “rather than give their keepers an inch of satisfaction.”

Harry sees his parents and their lives as limited and unrealistic and strives to be their exact opposite. In contrast to his Bible-thumping father, “Harry’s confidence was in his unrighteousness, his ability to dodge the consequences.” Harry is the epitome of the American hustler, doing anything to get ahead of the game and stay that way, forever on the move, always looking for an advantage. While Michiko is unbridled emotion, Harry sees himself as...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)