Want some enlightening escapism? Try this ninja detective thriller set in 16th-century Japan

Betrayal at Iga

A Hiro Hattori Novel

Susan Spann

Seventh Street Books, paperback

In this fifth novel in Susan Spann’s Hiro Hattori series, danger starts on page one and doesn’t let up until almost the very end.

Set in 16th-century Japan, the series focuses on Hiro Hattori, a master ninja from the Iga province who once refused a commander’s orders and is now serving what is supposed to be a long, humiliating punishment. Hiro is tasked with protecting a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Father Mateo, who, at first, speaks insufficient Japanese and doesn’t understand how easily he could be hurt or killed for inadvertently blundering over an important local custom or taboo.

During the four previous books of the series, Hiro grudgingly has been helping Father Mateo get a better grip on feudal Japan, its rulers, its warlords and its strict and unforgiving social order. Along the way, the ninja and the priest also have been thrust into situations where they have had to work together to solve some murders.

In Betrayal at Iga, Father Mateo now is more knowledgeable and comfortable with being in Japan, speaking its language and reaching a few Christian converts. And Hiro has recognized that the foreign priest is an honorable man in his own way. Hiro now admits that he and Father Mateo have become friends. But it is a time of trouble, so he and the Portuguese Jesuit have had to take refuge among Hiro’s clan. And, in their “safety,” they soon discover they are sheltering in a village where many people are trained assassins.

Indeed, when an ambassador from a neighboring clan appears and tries to negotiate a peace agreement with Iga, he is poisoned during a welcoming dinner and dies right in front of Hiro and Father Mateo.

If the killer is not found soon, war may break out between the ninjas of each clan. Or Hiro and Father Mateo themselves may be killed. No pressure at all on the two investigators!

The author, Susan Spann, has a degree in Asian history and has maintained a lifelong fascination with Japanese history and culture. She has an excellent eye for detail and creates believable settings and scenes without bogging down her smooth writing. She also has her characters speak with straightforward, accessible dialogue.

Betrayal at Iga is fine escapism: a 16th-century ninja detective procedural. The story also offers subtle and absorbing lessons in Japanese history, geography, customs, warfare, love, honor and friendship.

It’s five-star reading and definitely recommended if you are looking for something well beyond an ordinary detective thriller.

Si Dunn

 

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WRATH OF THE FURIES: Roman detective Gordianus the Finder tries to go undercover amid angry Greeks bearing arms – #bookreview

 

Wrath of the Furies

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books – hardback, Kindle

As a young student, I deliberately avoided the ancient world—all of those armless and headless statues, magnificent carved-stone structures collapsed into rubble, “wonders of the world,” and gods and goddesses who allegedly had both magical powers and human frailties.

Now that I am somewhat older (okay, a lot older), I have read several of the 15 novels in Steven Saylor’s popular Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. The series features a clever Roman investigator known as Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is a fictional character, but he encounters many of the ancient world’s real-life kings, queens, generals, political leaders and other figures while trying to solve murders and other crimes.

Thanks to Saylor’s expertise and irrepressible enthusiasm for ancient Roman and Greek times, I have found myself both enjoying his engaging fiction and pausing now and then to look up more about the people, places, things, and customs that Gordianus is encountering in each book. In other words, I am learning some eye-opening things about the ancient world and wishing I had gotten an earlier start.

In Saylor’s new novel, Wrath of the Furies, set in 88 B.C., Gordanius is a young man of just 22 and still somewhat subject to youth’s reckless belief in invincibility.  He receives a cryptic message, apparently a distress signal, from his former tutor and friend, Antipater, and decides to sneak into Greek-held territory to try to rescue him. Of course, this is at a dangerous moment. Greek forces led by the brutal King Mithridates are taking back Greek-speaking cities previously held by the Roman Empire. Some of Italy’s states also are revolting against Rome. So now is not a good time to be Roman detective snooping around amid angry Greeks bearing arms.

It is also not a good time for travelling with your slave (and lover), Bethesda, while trying to disguise yourself as a mute so your Roman-accented Greek won’t give you away. And it is an especially bad time to be going to the ancient Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (where King Mithridates now holds the home-court advantage), particularly when you don’t realize that sinister and powerful forces are drawing you in, and you must solve the mystery of Antipater’s message before it gets you and others killed.

Wrath of the Furies is a fine addition to Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa ancient history-mystery series.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

STONE COLD DEAD: In this third Ellie Stone mystery, the ‘girl reporter’ digs deeply into a dark case – #mystery #bookreview

 

Stone Cold Dead

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin 

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

Ellie Stone is a skilled investigator at a time when women are still expected to mainly stay home and take care of their families. The year is 1961, and local citizens call Ellie as “that girl reporter.”She works for a small newspaper in a mill town in Upstate New York.

When someone is murdered or disappears, Ellie often is sought out by relatives of the dead or missing, especially when they think the local police may not be giving their loved one’s case enough attention.

Indeed, in the first two novels of the Ellie Stone series, the “girl reporter” has been gaining a reputation as a good investigative reporter and crime reporter, as well as amateur detective. That story line continues in Stone Cold Dead, James W. Ziskin’s well-written third Ellie Stone mystery.

Despite her local fame, however, Ellie remains a clear victim of gender discrimination in the news room. Her editors keep trying to assign her to stories involving bake sales, society happenings, Scout meetings, weddings and other “women’s news” events. And Ellie keeps pushing back against the long-traditional male dominance of “hard news” reporting. Sometimes she resists to the point that her job is put in jeopardy.

Of course, job attitudes hardly matter at all when you have asked one too many questions and suddenly talked your way into a life-threating situation. Ellie is good at this. Her curiosity, her probing and her desire to keep showing she can compete with the guys sometimes gets her too far out in front of safety and common sense.

James W. Ziskin is an excellent storyteller who offers up more detail and dialogue than many other mystery writers provide. He also lets his “I” character have more time for introspection and internal debate than is common in investigator stories. This lets us see more deeply into process of how Ellie solves a case.

Ziskin also writes convincingly about what life was like in the newsroom of a 1960s newspaper and out on the small-town streets. I worked as a young reporter for several small-town newspapers in the mid-1960s. And there was a very clear gender divide. Women covered “women’s news,” while guys got to cover the “cop shop” and sheriff’s department, prominent murder trials, fatal car wrecks, plane crashes, shootings, fires, and other “big”news events.

Stone Cold Dead spans 313 pages in paperback. A 15-year-old girl slips out of her junior-high school bus while it is stopped and disappears. Clues left behind point to the likelihood she has run away to be with a young lover. But as Ellie keeps questioning people and piecing together a trail, she realizes that several darker outcomes are becoming possible. And her own life is in danger, too.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new mystery from Terry Shames: ‘A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge’ – #bookreview #mystery

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge

Terry Shames

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

The title may be a bit too folksy and over the top for a few hard-core mystery lovers. But the Samuel Craddock investigative series by Terry Shames does an excellent job of capturing the sights, sounds, speech patterns, customs, mannerisms and values of many people in contemporary East Texas, an area of the state that identifies more closely with the Deep South than with the Wild West. And her central character, Samuel Craddock, is both a retired small-town police chief and someone people still quickly turn to for help when there’s trouble.

Even in bucolic East Texas, trouble is always brewing somewhere nearby. And, despite his age and a bad knee, Samuel Craddock can be counted on to try to help, whether it’s defusing bad-blood tensions between two people or two families or, central to each book, tracking down a killer. He knows many people and knows something of their histories. But he is frequently surprised by what happens within the undercurrents that flow through seemingly tranquil small towns and their surrounding countryside.

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge is the fourth novel in Ms. Shames’s fast-expanding series. Her previous Samuel Craddock mystery,  Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, was published just six months ago (October, 2014). And it saw Craddock coming out of retirement to take over again, temporarily, as Jarrett Creek’s police chief.

In Deadly Affair, Craddock is still on the job from which he previously retired. And now he is having to go out of his jurisdiction to investigate a complicated case involving a death and a very close friend who isn’t telling him the whole truth about her background.

Terry Shames grew up in East Texas and knows how to make her fictionalized settings and characters come alive.  If you are looking for a new, different and engrossing investigator to follow, slow down, relax a bit and mosey along with Samuel Craddock as he sets out to solve yet another mysterious death.

Si Dunn

 

The Life We Bury – A tense, engrossing and fast-paced debut novel – #bookreview

The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

Minnesota writer Allen Eskens’ first novel is tense, engrossing and fast-paced reading–an excellent debut.

College student Joe Talbert has been given a seemingly simple writing assignment for an English class: Go interview and write a brief biography of a stranger. True to college life, Joe waits almost too long to begin working on the task. Then he hurries over to a nursing home, hoping to find someone interesting. The man he interviews, Carl Iverson, turns out to be a Vietnam War veteran who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Iverson, Joe learns, also is a convicted rapist and murderer who has been medically paroled to the nursing home to spend his final days. As Joe begins to dig deeper into Iverson’s story, he starts turning up proof that Iverson was wrongly convicted three decades ago.

Meanwhile, Joe also has become attracted to his next-door neighbor, Lila. Soon, he pulls Lila into his investigation of Iverson, too. Together, they keep digging deeper, until they finally get themselves into ugly danger that seems to offer no possibility of escape.

No big spoilers here, but this mystery thriller’s heart-thumping, nerve-jarring conclusion has more than one clock winding down to the final, deadly seconds. The Life We Bury is superb investigator fiction, with action.

Si Dunn