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Book Review: Bottled Lightning

Although mystery thrillers with well-intentioned but flawed protagonists have become one of the most popular fiction genres today, what Mark Weeks pulls off in his debut thriller Bottled Lightning is different – in scope, subject matter, setting, and culture. Starting with a table of contents in English and Japanese, a list of people and companies that figure in the plot, a map of the little-known Russian Far East, and a scary, wild motorcycle ride that revs up the action on page one.

Tornait (Torn) Sagara and his client, Saya Laura Brooks, are for fun, her insistance, speeding down a Tokyo expressway on Torn’s bike then suddenly speeding for their lives as someone in a car with tinted windows bears down on them, gun in hand, and motorcycle thugs try to run them off the road. Thankfully, Torn’s skilled experience kicks in, reflecting his author’s passion for racing motorcycles.

Torn also mirrors his author’s professional life as a high-end lawyer and managing partner of the Tokyo office of a global law firm specializing in entrepreneurial technology. Wait – there’s more: Like Mark Weeks, Torn Sagara also has expertise in martial arts, not to mention total fluency in Japanese. We won’t assume personal connections for character complications, as Torn has a mismanaged love life as the separated husband of a clinging Japanese woman, the father of two grown children, Sean and Sophia, and the paramour of two Japanese women, one of whom is a sexy borderline-personality charmer.

Torn’s got commitment issues. He hardly knows Saya, his new tech client, but they bond because they are both biracial, with parents who are American and Japanese. Even though Torn is a Japanese citizen and lawyer who has passed the challenging Japanese legal exam, he is still considered a “foreigner.” Bottled Lightning, if nothing else, is an instructive look at contemporary Japan as it competes for world attention in an ever-volatile financial market and seeks to act on its own traditions while opening up to the West. Some of the cultural differences may surprise Westerners, particularly the ways in which the Japanese criminal justice system operates, the telling importance of honorifics in addressing others, and the power of religious and cultural rituals in secular situations.

The novel, full of physical violence, also is full of technical and financial details, perhaps at times a bit much for the average reader, but lending authenticity to the narrative. Weeks certainly seems to have mastered the arcana of boardroom machinations and scientific innovations such as Saya’s invention of “lightning in a bottle,“ at the heart of the attempted killings on the highway and later in her office.

Her forward-looking invention of recyclable electricity and storage, “far more reliable than wind power and solar power, would make all fossil fuels, nuclear power, and current renewable energy technology obsolete.”

Who would oppose such an environmental achievement? Hello, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, the US, and leading oil and gas companies everywhere. As Bottled Lightning shows, rumors about new energy discoveries are already affecting markets and politics. Bottled Lightning, a suspenseful narrative with compelling, realistic characters, also shows how so-called white-collar crime works hand in glove with brute force. It will certainly give readers pause as they follow the news, but also a nice jolt of entertainment.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.