Kamikaze, by “Michael Slade”: Great thriller, less than great on the psychology

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. In fact, two or three chapters in, I didn’t even want to. But Kamikaze grew on me in spite of myself. The things I felt were missing remained problematic, but other elements of the story gradually began to shine, and the book lived up to its advance billing as a thriller.

The story alternates between the present day and certain major incidents in World War Two, including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Americans’ dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. These events produced repercussions which have rippled through the lives of three of the main characters who survived them, and affected the families of these two men and one woman for two generations.

For those reasons, one might expect a great deal of emotional angst as the self-doubt of the American veteran and the Japanese soldier’s hunt for revenge are explored. Instead the narrative is spare, in some places almost staccato, and violent action seems authentic and alive while human relationships are portrayed as more stereotypical than real.

“Michael Slade” is a writing team which, for this novel, consists of Vancouver lawyer Jay Clarke and his daughter Rebecca. (Team writers for previous “Slade” novels have included Jay’s wife, Lee Clarke, and fellow lawyers John Banks and Richard Covell, but Jay Clarke is the common denominator for every book.) I am probably guilty of my own stereotyping when I say it was Rebecca Clarke’s involvement in this book that led me to expect a more realistic portrayal of the psyches and emotions of the characters.

But Joe “Red” Hett is more a symbol of “the American veteran” than a real person. He is tough and fiercely patriotic, giving ground to no one; one could imagine George C. Scott or John Wayne portraying this character. His son Charles and granddaughter Jackie are equally stereotypes: the easygoing ex-army son who is a chuckling buffer between his old man and his daughter; and the daughter herself, apple of the men’s eye yet full of spunk, who follows the family military tradition by joining the RCMP via her dual citizenship. The interactions of these three feel scripted rather than natural: “this is where the gruff grandfather awkwardly hints at his secret pride in the headstrong granddaughter.”

Tokuda the Japanese veteran, meanwhile, is ruthless and inscrutable, coldly plotting a sixty-year vengeance through control of the yakuza, Japan’s criminal underworld. He escapes being entirely a stereotype himself because his psychological state seems more real. But that could be mere coincidence, since we expect someone who has suffered the traumas he has to be emotionally inaccessible.

And yet, despite its shakiness when it comes to psychological exploration, the “thriller” aspect of Kamikaze is well worth the read. The most gripping segments of the book occur when the Enola Gay is on its way to Hiroshima, and finally drops the bomb. (And fortunately, the psychological effects of this act on the plane’s crew leap dramatically into the picture of their own accord.)

When the final hunt begins, we are on the edge of our seats, waiting breathlessly to see if this stage will go through without mishap, and this one, and the next. The hunt is exquisitely detailed, and our anxiety builds as the precious seconds tick away.

A dissatisfying non-confrontation is turned around by a final crowning plot twist that sideswipes us, and demonstrates that the psychological depths were always there if only they had been more vividly plumbed. Yet even that final psychological twist, although it was developed more convincingly than others in the book, is left in the end to be analyzed dryly by external observers.

Kamikaze is something of a mixed bag. If you’re uncomfortable with the emotional side of things but eager for suspenseful action, the story builds to a climax you’ll enjoy. If you’re interested in a real portrayal of the psychological and emotional effects of the violent history described in the book, you will probably not be satisfied. 

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