FOR the second time in 50 years, the United States is at war with Japan. Or so Michael Crichton would have us believe. Readers who agree that the United States is locked in economic combat with Tokyo will take satisfaction in Crichton's new novel, "Rising Sun," since a financial duel with Japan is the central theme (and certainly the most intriguing element) of this otherwise lackluster thriller.
"Rising Sun" may be the world's first protectionist pot boiler. As a pulpit for his thinly veiled sermon on the US need to guard its economic borders, Crichton has slapped together a silly murder plot that lets two Los Angeles cops match wits with a cabal of Japanese businessmen and debate US trade policies.
The book's hero, Peter Smith (a character as bland as his name), is the LA Police Department liaison to the Asian community; Smith's typical assignments entail getting drunken diplomats safely back to their hotels. His professional routine is disrupted, however, the night he is summoned to a celebrity-packed office party at the Nakamoto Tower, a Japanese-owned corporate fortress where a nubile blonde has just been discovered in a state of rigor mortis.
Has a business rival of Nakamoto staged the murder to embarrass the globe-spanning corporate giant? Are the inscrutable boardroom warlords who run Nakamoto playing some sort of elaborate game with US law officers? To better comprehend the alien forces arrayed against him, Smith teams up with John Connor, a quietly macho police detective who speaks fluent Japanese and has developed a legendary reputation for penetrating the veils of Nipponese secrecy.
As it turns out, Nakamoto is attempting to swallow a strategically important US computer corporation - a merger that has generated considerable political controversy and may be linked to the killing. Connor, acting as Smith's guru, quickly introduces the younger officer to the world of trans-Pacific corporate hardball, where bribery and blackmail are the rule.
Unfortunately, Connor sounds more like a professor of international economics than a street-wise LA cop. "Everybody's getting tired of trying to do business in Japan. Because no matter what they tell you, Japan is closed. A few years ago, T. Boone Pickens bought one-fourth of the stock of a Japanese company, but he couldn't get on the board of directors."
This dialogue comes closer to "Wall Street Week in Review" than "Farewell, My Lovely," but readers with an interest in business may find some of the canned conversation amusing. Crichton, an occasional film director, also throws some spiffy video technology into the plot, which he keeps moving at a brisk clip: Frequently inane, "Rising Sun" is never boring. The problem with Crichton's bellicose analysis is that it blames the Japanese for problems brought on by the US's own misdeeds. Crichton's characters
repeatedly cite aspects of the current economic crisis - poor investment rates, regressive anti-trust laws, lazy college students - which have nothing to do with Tokyo.
Without giving away the punchless ending, I can say that Smith's ultimate decision to resign his position as Asian liaison officer struck me as a lame metaphor for the protectionist agenda Crichton seems to be advocating. One only hopes the book's readers will have no similar illusions about resigning from the world economy.