Cornell Woolrich wrote nearly 30 novels from 1926-1960. His most notable work is the 1942 short story “It Had to be Murder”, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcok as “Rear Window” in 1954. One of his shorts, “Tokyo, 1941”, was written in 1960 and later featured in two compilation books by Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg - “The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels” (1986) and “13 Short Espionage Novels” (1985).
The book begins in a Hong Kong hotel room as an American secret agent/spy named Lyons transfers some vials to a Caucasian male under the guise of selling a camera. There's a Chinese woman in the room with Lyons and we quickly learn that he's married but quite the ladies man. Adding to his rather unlikable nature is that he's a liar and a cheat, which are probably great traits for a spy to possess, but ultimately makes for a lousy human. After low-balling and cheating a shop owner out of a valuable diamond, Lyons makes his way back to suburban life in Azabu-ku.
Returning to the normal 9-5 day job at the Acme Travel Agency, Lyons argues with his wife Ruth consistently. She doesn't know about his secret agent night life and Lyons, while being a real hothead, has no need to tell her his whereabouts. She thinks he's out bedding tramps...and she's fairly accurate in her appraisal. The reader can sense that the marriage is nearing its final end.
The story then takes a right turn by introducing us to a beautiful Japanese woman named Tomiko. She arrives at the equivalent of Japan's Secret Service upon request by Colonel Setsu. He demands she sacrifice herself to the Emperor by becoming Lyons lover. She'll submit her body in an effort to grab an important radio transmitter. It's all silly espionage stuff – secret vials, radios and handshakes – but it makes for an effective story. Gaining Lyons attention is no difficult task, and soon the story reaches a climactic point in a lakeside cabin. Lyons may be working for the Russians, Ruth may be on to Lyons game and this Japanese woman...well she's really just the connecting point.
I'm not sure really what Woolrich had in mind when writing the story. It's certainly steeped in spy mythology, but comes across as social subtext on failed marriage. The Russian/US/Japan circus is prevalent, but there's the diamond portion and a slight prison angle that makes this wishy-washy at best. It's a myriad of story arcs that really doesn't lead to anything other than just an average story. Nothing more, nothing less. Paperback Warrior will continue the search for a satisfying Woolrich read.