Geisha Confidential by Mark Coggins


Mark Coggins’s new Tokyo-based crime novel, Geisha Confidential, features middle-aged San Francisco-based private investigator August Riordan, who has appeared in a number of previous books in this award-winning series. Read this fast-paced story, and you’ll barely have time to feel the jet lag. Almost as soon as Riordan’s plane lands, trouble starts.

He’s made the trip across the Pacific for a personal reason. The last boyfriend of his dead former assistant has reached out to him for help, offering to pay Riordan’s airfare, hotel and expenses. Riordan, who has never travelled outside the United States before and can’t speak Japanese, is dubious about how much help he can provide, but out of loyalty to his former staff member he finds himself in the heart of Tokyo’s commercial and finance sectors.

The Japanese-American boyfriend, whom Riordan knew as Ken Ono, is certainly a surprise. She’s called Coco now – highly attractive, with long black hair, a mischievous smile and a fondness for big straw hats. Coco is well into her gender transition; in the local slang, she’s a new-half prostitute.

That is precisely where the trouble seems to have started. A nurse in the office of her doctor, a prominent Japanese gender reassignment surgeon, warned her not to go through with her next operation. Since then, Coco’s been followed and an attempt was made on her life. In fact, the first conversation between Coco and Riordan is interrupted by a gangster’s attack, validating Coco’s impression that the problem involves yakuza – Japanese organised crime. While Riordan fends it off, the attack has the unexpected benefit of demonstrating to him the Tokyo police’s complete disinterest in the troubles of a trans resident.

There’s quite a bit of solid humour in this story, given the inevitable cultural gaffes Riordan makes and Coco’s light-hearted spirit, despite the dangers. They start following up leads – at the bar where Coco earns a nice living as a hostess, at her doctor’s office. This follow-up engenders more attacks and evidence that potential informants are being murdered before Riordan can get to them. On the whole, it’s an interesting peek at the seamier side of Japanese culture – the Japanese adult video industry, high-end brothels and the lifestyles of sex workers– at a level of detail sufficient to the story but not too shocking.

Riordan is a well-developed, crusty character and Coco is a delight. On one hand, she appreciates the vulnerable position she’s in but on the other she’s not backing down easily. Her boyfriend, a former sumo wrestler, provides excellent protection too. Another intriguing character is that of police sergeant Miyojima, exiled to a lowly outpost in some bureaucratic flap, who provides unexpected support. He’s spent some time in Los Angeles on an exchange program with the LAPD, so his English is thankfully good. He and Riordan too, of course, are both game to bend a few rules and they click.

Mark Coggins is an accomplished photographer whose work has appeared in numerous galleries and shows and his skills are transferred to his eye for descriptive detail. I could easily picture the many settings where the novel’s action takes place. He made at least one trip to Tokyo before COVID and maybe he’s made many more trips there, because his descriptions convey an intimate knowledge of the city that makes this whole somewhat wild and wacky story quite believable.

Riordan, Coco, her boyfriend and Sergeant Miyojima uncover a much more complicated and tragically murderous plot than expected. From one quarter or another, they are all in danger. Throw in the yakuza, high-ranking politicians and some Bitcoin traders and you know big bucks and big egos are in play.

The reading experience is enhanced by black and white photos of Tokyo that aid in scene-setting and are a nice mix of the exotic and the familiar. One request of authors who write books with lots of characters in a complicated story: include a list of them. Particularly when their names are culturally different from what readers are accustomed to, it can become hard to keep track of who’s who – at least for me! 

Try Seichō Matsumoto’s classic Tokyo Express or Michael Pronko’s Tokyo Zangyo.

Down & Out Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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