Master ninja Hiro Hattori and his companion Father Mateo are once again pulled into a murder investigation when a rival artisan turns up dead outside of their friend Ginjiro’s sake brewery. They must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro, seizes the brewery, and renders his family destitute. All the evidence implicates the brewer, yet with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, Ginjiro’s is not the only life at risk.
As tensions rise, Hiro investigates a missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, a moneylender and the victim’s spendthrift son. But when a drunken Buddhist monk insists on helping Hiro and Father Mateo solve the crime, the monk’s bumbling threatens to foil the investigation altogether. With time running out, Hiro once again gambles on a clandestine mission to find the truth. Except that this time, Hiro isn’t the only one with a secret mission to fulfill.
Flask of the Drunken Master is the latest entry in Susan Spann’s thrilling 16th century Japanese mystery series, sure to gain new fans and please old alike.
After last year’s wonderful Blade of the Samurai, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to review its successor Flask of the Drunken Master, the third in the Shinobi Mysteries by Susan Spann. The book definitely didn’t disappoint, though it doesn’t stand alone as well as Blade of the Samurai did. The consequences of the power vacuum after the death of the Shogun in the previous book are felt throughout the narrative and there are some characters from the first book in the series, Claws of the Cat, that make a return appearance. Still, Spann returns us to Hiro, Father Mateo, and Kyoto for another interesting murder to solve.
The main characters of the series remain its principal strength. Hiro and Father Mateo are great characters, whose chemistry works really well. The interactions between them, including Hiro’s exasperation at Mateo’s social blundering and the priest’s disapproval of Hiro’s taking liberties with the truth when necessary, remain my favourite thing in this book as well. I love how Hiro uses Mateo to ask questions that Japanese tradition and politeness prevent him from asking without giving offence. Their relationship has blossomed into friendship of the years spent together; Hiro doesn’t only protect Mateo because he gets paid to do so any more, he genuinely cares about the priest. But this growing closeness also brings conflict as the priest isn’t afraid to call out Hiro when he feels he is disrespecting him by tuning out whenever Mateo discusses his religion.
Spann uses the above-mentioned conflict to illustrate the inherent tension between Hiro’s innate feeling of superiority over Mateo – not just due to his Samurai status, but also due to Mateo’s being a foreigner – and the respect he has for the priest. This resonates with the larger narrative where class differences and the various power differentials between them play a large role. The contempt the samurai guards show those they consider beneath them, whether they are commoners, merchants, or a foreigner like Father Mateo is palpable and they crossover into abuse more often than not. Similarly, the way Akechi uses her Samurai status to intimidate those from the classes below hers to pay up their debts, trusting in her higher status to keep her safe from repercussions. But we also see the flip side, when Hiro and Mateo encounter several eta or untouchables and Hiro has to persuade Mateo to leave the eta alone for their own sake, because his insistence on talking to them might bring them trouble and embarrasses them to boot.
The Samurai are such an important and threatening presence due to the power struggle over the empty seat of Kyoto’s shogunate. It’s a conflict that bleeds through the narrative, influencing trade deals and upping the tension in Kyoto to the boiling point. It’ll be interesting to see if and how this situation shapes the plot of the next book. And hopefully several of the returning characters from this book will return in the next one as well. Ginjiro and Tomiko, the father and daughter who run Hiro’s local sake brewery and who we’ve met before, play central roles in the plot. As does Akechi Yoshiki, who is the daughter of the first book’s murder victim. They were all interesting characters, especially Tomiko and Akechi, who are anything but traditional women and I’d love to see them again.
As is often the case in modern day crime shows, it’s all about the money in this case as well. The concept of debt, whether monetary or of honour, is intricate and complicated, doubly so in the honour-driven Japanese culture. It is Hiro’s honour debt to Ginjiro that seals the deal on him assisting in tracking the true killer, even if he’d been inclined to help Ginjiro and his family without it. Debt and money-lending plays an important part in the economy of Kyoto and it too is very much class-restricted, with money lenders only giving loans to specific groups of people. Follow the money is always wise advise and I loved the places the trail takes Hiro and Father Mateo in Flask of the Drunken Master.
This third entry in the Shinobi Mysteries was just as entertaining as its predecessor. Spann has clearly done her research on Japan in the sixteenth century and it shows without being overbearing or overwhelming. Add to that two charming main characters supported by a great cast of secondary and background characters, a good plot, and a nice twist or two and you have a recipe for a great murder mystery. I really enjoyed Flask of a Drunken Master. Hopefully, Hiro and Father Mateo will return in the future, because I’m curious to see what happens in the struggle for the shogunate.
Tuesday, July 7th: Open Book Society – Claws of the Cat
Thursday, July 9th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Friday, July 10th: 5 Minutes for Books
Monday, July 13th: A Fantastical Librarian
Monday, July 13th: Griperang’s Bookmarks – Claws of the Cat
Tuesday, July 14th: girlichef
Wednesday, July 15th: Buried Under Books
Thursday, July 16th: Jorie Loves a Story
Monday, July 20th: Book Dilettante
Tuesday, July 21st: Bell, Book & Candle
Tuesday, July 21st: Griperang’s Bookmarks – Blade of the Samurai
Wednesday, July 22nd: The Reader’s Hollow
Thursday, July 23rd: Book Nerd
Friday, July 24th: Mom’s Small Victories
Monday, July 27th: Broken Teepee
Tuesday, July 28th: Priscilla and Her Books
Wednesday, July 29th: Reading Reality
Thursday, July 30th: Open Book Society
Friday, July 31st: A Chick Who Reads
Monday, August 3rd: Luxury Reading
Friday, August 7th: Griperang’s Bookmarks