Sunday, August 9, 2015


FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER by Susan Spann (Minotaur, 2015) continues the exciting adventures of ninja spy Hattori Hiro and the Portuguese priest he must protect in sixteenth century Japan. While Kyoto stews in uneasy anticipation as rival warlords plot for control of the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must prove the innocence of their friend Ginjiro, a brewer accused of murdering an indebted colleague. The victim, who had been seeking Ginjiro's sponsorship for admittance into the brewer's guild despite his spendthrift son owing Ginjiro a significant sum, is found felled by violent blows to the head in Ginjiro's alley. The police immediately arrest Ginjiro, assuming he murdered the man over the unpaid debt. Ginjiro faces execution in a matter of days unless Hiro and Father Mateo can find evidence to exonerate him. The duo's shrewd investigation quickly unearths other suspects--a missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, a female moneylender--all with sufficient motive for murder. But can Hiro winnow the possibilities and name the perpetrator before the magistrate pronounces judgment--and before chaos descends upon a city, endangering the foreign priest's life and mission?

As she did in the series' previous installments, CLAWS OF THE CAT (2013) and BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (2014), Spann once again proves herself adept at constructing a compelling, watertight plot that keeps the reader wondering at the murderer's identity up until the very last pages. This meticulous storytelling unfolds against an ever-broadening evocation of sixteenth-century Japanese society. Each book in the Shinobi series concentrates its action in a specific milieu. CLAWS unveils the stylized world of the tea-house and its samurai clientele, while BLADE recreates the offices and interactions of government functionaries. FLASK moves into the commercial stratum of society, evoking the world of rice merchants, brewers, and money-lenders. Other than Hiro, only a single samurai mixes it up with the working class characters who populate this story, which leads the reader deep among the bins of rice warehouses, the vats of sake breweries, and the alleys of the merchant district. It is Father Mateo's mission and status as an outsider that permit him and Hiro to penetrate these different social niches--a pretext the author uses to full advantage. With a unique setting and particular characters, each Shinobi mystery feels fresh, even as it adds another facet to the broader historical world Spann so painstakingly reanimates.

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In any good mystery, the protagonist's quest to solve the murder serves as a crucible in which his own character is tested and transformed. THE FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER is no exception to this rule. The rigors of the investigation strain the fledging friendship between Hiro and Mateo by highlighting the differences in their outlooks and ethics. Mateo's western religion causes Hiro no end of puzzlement, specifically its condemnation of lies. The two men have a falling out over the questioning of a suspect, and Father Mateo's anger at Hiro's flippant approach to the tenets of the Christian faith causes Hiro to realize that he has, indeed, disrespected his friend's beliefs. This incident marks a change in their relationship and addresses the question that ever lurks in the reader's mind as to what degree the ninja will or will not be influenced by his exposure to Christianity. A ruthless act he commits several chapters later reminds the reader that Hiro is still very much a professional assassin, but the earlier incident establishes a precedent for potential religious/ethical questioning in a future book. In any case, it adds an interesting wrinkle to the pair's evolving relationship and proves it to be moving beyond the polite formality of employer and employed, despite Hiro's efforts prevent emotion from complicating--or compromising--his protective mission.

The tightly constructed murder mystery, the detailed look at an unfamiliar segment of Japanese society, and the deepening of Hiro's character satisfy all the more, given the seamless way Spann weaves them into the broader mystery of who has hired Hiro to guard the priest, how the imminent clash of clans might endanger Mateo, and why. The particular mystery of the brewer's murder might be solved, and convincingly so, but these overarching questions continue to tease. FLASK whets the reader's thirst to pursue answers, and Susan Spann's precise pen and vivid imagination have proven more than up to the task of providing them.

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