A murder in the new Los Angeles headquarters of a major Japanese conglomerate exposes the illicit dealings and political blackmailing that sustain the Japanese stranglehold of the American high technology markets. The novel opens on a lavish party on the 45th floor in the Nakamoto Corporation's brand new Los Angeles HQ, the Nakamoto Tower, where Japanese executives rub elbows with America's wealthiest and most politically powerful men and women. But things take a turn when, on the 46th floor, a young American prostitute is found murdered. Rather than cooperate with the first arriving LAPD officers, Ishiguro (a Nakamoto PR specialist) demands that two special cultural liaison officers, Lieutenant Peter Smith and Captain John Connor, take over the case.
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Smith is younger, and new to the delicate dance of Japanese-American relations, while Connor is semi-retired but has extensive experience with all the subtle minutiae of Japanese culture. Ishiguro clearly expects these two officers to be more amenable to keeping the investigation quiet, lest any resulting scandal tarnish the Nakamoto Tower's grand opening.
Right away, though, the detectives realize that Ishiguro is stonewalling them and has no intention of providing genuine cooperation, which only stokes their suspicions. The security tapes of the 46th floor have also gone missing, and none of the on-duty guards seem to know anything at all. The two detectives dive deeper into the identity of the prostitute, Cheryl Austin, and discover that she was an escort for the Yakuza, the all-powerful Japanese crime syndicate. They also discover, at Ishiguro's "helpful" prodding, that Austin recently had a relationship with a man named Eddie Sakamura, a wealthy Tokyo socialite who has spent the last few years in Los Angeles. They take Eddie in for questioning, but it's all just too convenient, and in the absence of any hard evidence they have to let him go.
Ishiguro then miraculously produces the missing security tapes, and lo and behold, the tapes very clearly show Sakamura murdering Cheryl Austin. With this evidence, they have no choice but to return to Sakamura's home to make the arrest. When they arrive, though, Eddie's Ferrari speeds off, and the two officers give chase – during which the Ferrari skids out of control, crashes, and explodes. With the "unequivocal" security tapes and the suspect dead, the police chief declares the case closed. But something still doesn't feel right to Smith.
He secretly takes the security tapes to an expert at USC, who deduces that the tapes have been doctored. Smith and Connor resume their investigation. Along the way, as they get closer to the truth, they find an escalating series of bribes (and threats) leveled at them by the increasingly anxious Nakamoto executives. Meanwhile, Connor lectures Smith (and the reader) about the Japanese takeover of the American high-technology sectors, and how they will do anything, no matter how corrupt, to maintain that dominance. Nakamoto represents this perfectly.
The detectives get a huge break when the USC video expert unravels the security tape tampering, and it's revealed that the Eddie was a patsy and that the real killer appears to be Senator John Morton, who was caught up in a sex game that got out of hand. Senator Morton, it turns out, was one of the loudest voices against the Japanese business practices, and it appears that Nakamoto doctored the tapes to protect him – and thereby have leverage over him in the future. The detectives confront the senator, who admits his guilt and then commits suicide.
Furthermore, Eddie is still alive; the man who died in the car crash was a Nakamoto security officer who had been ransacking Eddie's house in search of the original tape, which Eddie had absconded with. Again, everything appears to have resolved nicely. But when the detectives go to Eddie's house to tell him the good news, they find him brutally tortured. Connor deduces that there is something else in the original tape that the "fixed" security tape didn't show.
Smith returns home to find that Eddie, before his death, had left him the original tape. But before he can watch it, Nakamoto thugs arrive and a shootout occurs. Smith is shot, but saved by the timely arrival of Connor. They then watch the tape together and learn the real, final truth: Morton only believed he had killed Cheryl Austin, but she was only drugged to appear that way. In the tape, when Morton leaves the room, Ishiguro arrives and strangles Cheryl. The two detectives go to the Nakamoto Tower to arrest Ishiguro. But before they can do so, Ishiguro leaps out the window to his death.
The investigation is at last solved. Morton, Eddie, and Cheryl Austin are all dead, but so is the original killer, Ishiguro. But even so, the novel ends with the ominous implications that the high-stakes battle for dominance of the American technology markets has only just begun.
Best part of story, including ending:
This is complicated. The novel was nicely plotted, the characters were interesting, and the climax and resolution were genuinely satisfying. But the novel is a little too heavy-handed when it gets on its anti-Japanese soapbox -- a lecturing, author-intrusion problem that Crichton's best novels avoid, and his worst ones indulge in. The most fascinating element, though, is how much a product of its time this novel is. The hyped-up fear of Japan overtaking the American economy was an issue for about three to four years in the late 80s, and then disappeared completely in the 90s.
Best scene in story:
Any scene with Ishiguro was incredibly fascinating. But if I had to pick one, I would say the first introduction of Ishiguro, right after the murder, where Smith (and the reader) gets his first taste of just how strange and delicate this investigation is going to be, and how politely formidable a foe/helper Ishiguro is going to be.
Opinion about the main character:
I found Smith a little blah. But Connor, with his deep experience with the Japanese (which has instilled in him both great respect and great wariness of them), was a fantastic character.