Thursday, April 7, 2016

Flask of the Drunken Master - Susan Spann

   2015; 286 pages.  Book #3 (and most recent) in the Shinobi Mysteries series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    To be honest, it’s just a tad bit surreal.  On one hand, there’s a bald-headed monk in a stained brown robe yelling things like “Arrest me!  I’m the guilty one!” and “I’m the murderer, you fool!” at the police.  On the other, the police seem to have decided they already have their perpetrator, and are leading away a man with a lowered head and sagging shoulders.  Is it a sign of guilt?  Or of embarrassment?

    For Hiro, the scene is even more bizarre, for he knows both men.  The monk is Suke, who is one of 16th-century Kyoto’s leading town drunks.  A vagrant, but hardly the sort of man to murder someone.

    And the man being led away by the police is Ginjiro, a local brewer.  To whom Hiro owes a personal debt.  So when Ginjiro’s family asks Hiro to investigate the murder, he really has no choice but to get involved.

What’s To Like...
    There’s no scene-setting here, the action starts immediately (well,  page 4, technically), and our sleuthing team of an undercover ninja bodyguard (Hiro) and a Jesuit priest bringing Christianity to the Japanese (Father Mateo) both quickly become actively investigators.

    There’s a handy Cast of Characters at the beginning of the tale, and an equally useful Glossary of Japanese terms in the back.  The setting is 1560’s  Kyoto –  when ninjas and samurai were in their heyday.  The chapters are short, so there’s always a good place to stop for the night.  There is some subtle, wry humor running through the book, except when Suke talks, when subtlety flies out the window.

    Father Mateo and Hiro are the recurring stars.  Several other characters from The Sword of the Samurai are back (Ana, Gato, and Ozuru), but there are new ones as well.  I really liked the drunken monk, Suke, and there’s some noticeable dramatic tension between Hiro and Yoshiko that makes me think they’ll end up crossing each other’s paths a lot more as the series progresses.

    Once again, Susan Spann has done a very nice job of blending Historical Fiction with Murder Mystery.  This time, we get to explore medieval Kyoto a lot more, and for me that was a plus.  There is a continuing larger storyline – warring samurai lords locked in a bitter power struggle for control of Japan – but it pretty much stays in the background here, unlike in the previous book.

    “You don’t know where your husband is?” Father Mateo asked.
    “No,” Hama said.  “He went to a teahouse with friends and didn’t return.”
    “A teahouse?” Hiro asked.  “Does he sleep there often?”
     Hama’s frown deepened.  “My husband doesn’t frequent the kind of teahouse that lets patrons stay the night.”
    As far as you know, Hiro thought.  (pg. 102)

    ”You, of all people, could not commit this murder.”
    “I – of all people – could not kill?”  Yoshiko’s fury grew.  “You don’t believe I could take a person’s life?”
    Hiro hated when women asked a question that had no decent answer.  But, usually, these no-win questions involved a clothing choice or beauty, not a murderous intent.  He considered his answer carefully but quickly.
    He knew from experience, masculine pauses only made the situation worse.  (pg. 148)

 At times, a sense of justice proved an inconvenient traveling companion.  (pg. 231)
    I found the ending – the solving of the murder – to be only so-so.  Hiro deduces who the baddie is, not so much by direct evidence, but more from eliminating all the other suspects.  His “proof” is unconvincing – even the judge points that out – and only when the perpetrator stupidly blurts out a confession is Hiro proven right.

    It all felt like an episode of the 60's TV series, Perry Mason, if you’re old enough to remember that show.  Which is not necessarily bad, because Perry’s courtroom theatrics and ploys were always entertaining.  But no one ever claimed the show was even remotely realistic.  I felt like I could’ve gotten the baddie off, provided I could get them to keep their mouth shut.

    8 Stars.  Same as for Blade of the Samurai9 stars for the Historical Fiction, 7 stars for the Murder-Mystery.  Which is okay in my book, since I’m reading this series primarily for the way-kewl historical setting.

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