Working Tokyo nightclubs is easy money for beautiful and troubled American Val Benson - until a client with a rather unusual hobby - painting the private parts of his female liaisons - reluctantly gives up a map to a stash of Japanese war loot and tempts his favourite girl into a dangerous treasure hunt.
The Congressman's daughter is not the only one interested in the map: yakuza, bent cops, human traffickers, rogue CIA agents and her father are hot on her trail, snapping at her high heels.
So begins the dark, epic journey of a new anti-hero of Asian Noir, a protagonist both ambiguous and courageous, and utterly unreliable. From comfort women and tomb-raiding in Japanese-occupied Burma to the murderous echoes of the Vietnam War, long forgotten crimes come roaring back to life, as Val leaves a trail of destruction and chaos in her wake.
Together with her best friend, the equally unreliable nightclub hostess Suki, Val travels through Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok to the Thai-Burmese borderlands for a dramatic showdown with her pursuers. Finding the treasure before everyone else does is her only hope for survival, and perhaps redemption.
Is writing about violence “inspired”?
It’s natural to wonder how an artist creates a world. What is his or her inspiration? What if the work in question is immersed in horrible things? My novel, Gaijin Cowgirl, is a thriller set in Japan and Thailand over the sweep of history. Its themes include human trafficking, sexual exploitation and crimes against humanity, and the story is packed with violence.
And it’s also a helluva lot of fun.
So how does a writer reconcile the need to entertain with the terrible aspects of the story and his characters?
What this really asks is: why write at all? Gaijin Cowgirl is, firstly, a vehicle for entertainment. I enormously enjoyed writing it and readers like it for the same reason we like going to action movies. But at the same time, I wanted Gaijin Cowgirl to be more – a lot more.
The kernel of the story emerged during my spending a lot of time in Japan on business. I moved to Hong Kong in 1997 from the US and continue to spend a lot of time traveling, reading about different aspects of the region, and interacting with people. For a while, Tokyo was a regular stop, and I came to be fascinated by and enjoy Japanese culture. All societies have their dark sides; somehow Japan’s is notably quirky. While there, a foreign woman working as a hostess in a gentleman’s club vanished; years later it was revealed she had been murdered. From tragedy, a novel was born.
I was writing the initial drafts in 2001. The terrorist attacks of September 11th gave me pause. I wasn’t sure if I should continue my novel, which seemed suddenly trivial. I persevered, but resolved to make sure the story did more than just titillate. I was wrapping up the first draft in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
That led to some changes in tone and plot. Firstly it had to be about some pretty big things, particularly the abuse of power. You won’t find this explicitly in the book, aside from Japanese wartime abuses of female sex slaves. But I couldn’t stomach a Hollywood ending where all the bad guys get shot up and the good guys trade high-fives. There had to be consequences to the way my protagonist, the American Val Benson, bulldozed her way through Asia. She had to pay a steep price, even though she was the ‘good guy’.
Secondly it had to examine corruption at the highest levels. The US-Japanese relationship post World War II is complex. So is US involvement in Southeast Asia, not least during the Vietnam war. These themes are in the background to Gaijin Cowgirl – without them, there would be no story, although the plot itself barely touches these subjects.
Thirdly it was an exploration of post-bubble Japanese society. The country has suffered two decades plus of deflation and economic disaster, and that has exposed social problems. Morality in Japan is very different from that in the West, and it was not my intention to praise or condemn it, but to observe it for what it looks to be – particularly the impact it has on many young people.
Finally, somewhat speculatively, it connects the wartime crime of comfort women to contemporary human trafficking.
These are heavy-duty items and the last thing I wanted to do was preach. I want people to read a thriller, not endure a lecture. The final editing process with the guys from my publisher, Crime Wave Press, involved cutting back on some of this. But mostly I learned as a writer how to embed the necessary details into the service of the story.
Key to that was my protagonist, Val. She starts off as a self-absorbed party girl, who enjoys working as a hostess in Tokyo. Thanks to her killer looks and an effortless poise, she blows through life doing coke, manipulating her boyfriends, sponging off her estranged dad, and basically being a superficial bitch. She is redeemed (maybe) by her intelligence and, as the body count piles up, a growing sense of shame and perhaps complicity in a story that is far bigger than she. In the end she finds an inner courage she didn’t know she possessed, and tries to do the right thing.
Along the way she and her friend Suki, a Japanese hostess, encounter yakuza, rogue CIA agents, kickboxers, war criminals, pimps, gamblers and treasure hunters. The inspiration behind the novel is there, but it remains in the background, helping make possible all the plot’s mayhem, urging the reader to keep turning the page.
Author, Jame DiBiasio:
Jame DiBiasio is an award-winning financial journalist and editor. He is author of the non-fiction The Story of Angkor (published by Silkworm Books in 2013) and blogs at http://asiahacks.com. He lives in Hong Kong.
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Purchase on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Gaijin-Cowgirl-ebook/dp/B00BRHUA00