In his second novel, former International Editor for Road & Track magazine Sam Mitani continues to blend gripping action and international intrigue with fast cars, most of which are Japanese. It’s not hard to understand why. Almost 30 years ago Mitani put Japanese tuner cars on the greater automotive map when he gathered legends like GReddy, RE-Amemiya, and Veilside for a seminal R&T article that showed pre-internet Americans there was more to the aftermarket than Saleen Mustangs and Callaway Corvettes.
From the moment you open the cover, Red Mist is nonstop action where the hero drives cars like a Lexus RC F, Mazda RX-7, and Subaru WRX STI. Fans of action thrillers tend to geek out over gadgets like cars, aircraft, and weapons, and it can be frustrating when a story doesn’t get these details right. That is never the case with Red Mist.
The novel tells the tale of an ex-DEA agent named Max Koga who is recruited into an extra-governmental intelligence organization. He’s tough, as good with a gun as he is with his hands, and loves cars. And though details such as his father being a WRC driver or his favorite car being a Toyota 86 don’t really matter when Koga is infiltrating a terrorist compound, car enthusiasts will relish the thoroughness.
Car enthusiasts know that what you drive says a lot about you. In Red Mist there is never a sentence like, “He stepped out of a black sedan.” Each character, no matter how minor, if they are driving a car, the reader gets a make and model. Each ride matches the individual too, from an Uber driver’s Camry to an FBI agent’s Ford Explorer. My personal favorite is a fixer named Ben Xu (Xu is the Mandarin spelling of Hsu) who drives a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser (Full disclosure: Sam is a friend but, you know, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental…).
The plot centers around Koga unraveling a conspiracy that involves a leader in an extremist religious group determined to wreak havoc on the US and a mysterious Chinese EV automaker about to unveil its first supercar. Following the threads takes Koga from Los Angeles to Sinaloa to Beijing with plenty of bullets and bodies left in his wake. Koga is a new protagonist in Mitani thrillers, but Red Mist takes place in the same universe as his first novel, The Prototype, and if you’ve read it you may recognize a familiar name or two.
Mitani’s 22-year career as one of the most elite auto journalists in the world inform parts of his books that few others could write. In The Prototype it was a peek into the dazzling press junkets that writers get treated to. In Red Mist it’s a centerpiece shootout that takes place at the LA Auto Show. Each car is meticulously identified and there isn’t any of the magical “one shot blows up a whole car” stuff that’s typical of action sequences. Without spoiling too much, Koga cleverly hides behind the front of a Nissan Z where the engine block is located because, as car enthusiasts would know, sheetmetal ain’t going to stop a bullet.
Red Mist refers to a term in racing when a sort of madness takes over a driver, and they cast rational thought (e.g., personal safety) out the window in a primitive, all-consuming desire to win. Koga suffers from a similar ailment due to a botched drug raid that killed off his entire team. When the action heats up, he either needs to take a drug or he starts seeing red. However, the title could also refer to the hazy connections between various shady operators in communist nations.
Red Mist is an action-packed ride that never fails to entertain. I asked Sam why he chose to write a new protagonist instead of continuing with the one from his previous book. “I thought that Stockton Clay’s story wrapped up nicely at the end of The Prototype, and I was ready to introduce a new character whose real job was to hunt down bad guys,” Sam explained. “While Stockton was an automotive journalist who was thrown into the world of espionage, Max Koga became a spy thrown into the world of automotive journalism. I felt I could get more out of this character in this story.”
Koga’s military background and spec ops job certainly opens the doors to riskier scenarios and more dangerous antagonists. Beneath the title “Red Mist” on the cover are the words “A Max Koga thriller.” I hope that means Mitani has more in store.