Books & Movies That Grabbed Me and Never Let Go

JapantownThere’s a lot bubbling under the surface of Japantown. Partly because I travel a lot. Partly because I look at a lot. And partly because I’m an American who has lived in Japan for more than two decades.

I also maintain a rather dicey policy: I’ll try anything once. A relic from my more restless days. As a result, my curiosity ranges far, wide, and wider. I look for something extra. Call it substance, soul, or an extra ounce of magic. What follows is a sampling of stories—on paper and celluloid—that left me glued to my seat.


The Steam Pig by James McClure. Maybe the first guy to write a mystery about South African apartheid with wit, humor, compassion, and a deadly eye.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith charged at Soviet Russia in a way no other thriller ever has.

The Charm School by Nelson DeMille took an outrageous idea and made it more credible than I would have thought possible.


A scattering of early Robert B. Parker books left an impression, including Mortal Stakes. They have wit and compassion and they made the mystery modern, relevant, human, and moved it beyond a brooding gloom.

The Bone Collector is stunning. Jeffery Deaver dared to create a brilliant detective who was wheelchair-bound and could move only a portion of one finger—and he made it work.

Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon is the father of many creepy serial-killer novels that have followed in its wake. It’s dated now, in part because Harris’s ideas have been copied so often.


Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is a haunting film. A love-struck man falls for a bewitching woman, then love, betrayal, and so much more ensue. This is another story that may have lost some of its luster in the wake of imitators.

Focusing on the very real and contemporary problem of white slavery, Taken is compelling for a number of reasons. For one, I know of at least one person who was sucked into this nightmare. Different country, but same result. And no hero to the rescue as far as I know. Since Luc Besson is involved, the thriller is an over-the-top romp, but in its details, especially the Paris den of lost girls, the tale is chilling beyond measure.

Eastern Promises is brutal, gritty, and in-your-face frank. The script, camerawork, and directing are uncompromising. This is as realistic and thrilling as a crime movie can get.


Get Shorty was the first film to fully capture the tone of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels. Barry Sonnenfeld “got it” and his cast got it too. From Travolta’s underplayed cool to Hackman’s unselfconscious idiocy, it all works.

Martin Brest’s and George Gallo’s Midnight Run is a quiet masterpiece. The dialogue is understated and spot-on, the twists are continual, characters pop up at the most unexpected times, and the deliveries by Grodin, De Niro, and Yaphet Kotto are pitch perfect. A beautiful blend of comedy and suspense.

The Hard Way works on several levels. For starters, there’s a crime spree with a clever, in-your-face crazy, and there’s an original, highly amusing take on the buddy film. A bitter, hardboiled detective (James Wood) is saddled with an irritating movie star (Michael J. Fox) everyone adores but Wood. Fox wants to study Wood in situ to soak up the “essence” of his cop machismo, which only irritates Wood further. Fox plays the spoiled celluloid hero with real joy.


A lot of films could slot neatly under that heading, but I thought I’d offer something different: High Noon. This black-and-white standard is really a suspense movie disguised as a Western. It is as understated a film as you’ll ever watch. Every word, every glance, every frame counts.

The storytelling comes from a bygone age, so quell the skeptical voice whispering in your ear, allow your nerves to settle, and sit back and soak it up. You’ll find none of the adrenaline-charged theatrics we have all learned to expect, but in the right frame of mind you won’t be disappointed.

After D. T. Suzuki, the man responsible for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West, saw the film, he said, “Oh, this was a wonderful movie. The sheriff was a real Zen man!”

You can’t get any more universal than that.

BARRY LANCET’S international debut thriller is called JAPANTOWN and is published by Simon & Schuster. The story opens with a perfect murder in San Francisco’s Japantown, with a single clue that no one can read. The action moves from California to Tokyo, a town Lancet has called home for more than twenty-five years. His former position as an editor at one of the nation’s largest publishers gave him access to the inner circles in traditional and business fields most outsiders are never granted. It also gave him an insider’s view that informs his writing. He is currently finishing the second mystery/thriller featuring Jim Brodie. Although he spends most of his time on the far side of the Pacific, you can find him on Facebook and on Twitter. JAPANTOWN has been optioned by J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, in association with Warner Bros.