Flask of the Drunken Master
A Shinobi Mystery, Book #3
By Susan Spann
Author’s website: www.susanspann.com
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Daniele
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 engrossing third entry in the wonderful Shinobi Mystery series, and the main characters Hiro, the undercover ninja bodyguard, and the Portuguese priest Mateo, who he is sworn to protect, are as delightful as ever. Susan Spann draws a vivid picture of sixteenth century Japan that pulled me in right from the first sentence and kept me guessing until the very end.
While out on a morning quest for breakfast, Hiro and Father Mateo come across a disturbance at the sake house that Hiro frequents. The proprietor Ginjiro is being led away, charged with the murder of a fellow sake brewer named Chikoa who was found beaten to death behind Ginjiro’s shop. His daughter Tomiko implores the unlikely detective duo to find the real killer before her father is put to death. The assistant magistrate insists that Chikoa’s death was the accidental result of a fight between the two brewers and wants the case closed as quickly and quietly as possible. Hiro does not believe Ginjiro is guilty so he agrees to help. Could the victim’s debt ridden, spoiled son be to blame? Or the female samurai debt collector who often uses violence to obtain the money she is owed? Could his death be the result of brewery politics? The investigative pair finds themselves in increasingly tense situations as they ferret out the killer.
Flask of the Drunken Master picks up right after the action of Blade of the Samurai, but I do think it can be read as a stand-alone mystery. There is political upheaval following the recent death of the Shogun, and Kyoto is on edge waiting for the new Shogun to be announced. There are guards present everywhere, and everyone fears that war is coming. This adds to Hiro’s anxiety, fearing that Kyoto may soon be a dangerous place for Father Mateo.
My favorite part of this series is Hiro and Father Mateo’s improbable friendship. Their relationship has progressed from mere protector/protegee to a warm respect and affection for each other. I think that Hiro, though still obligated to safeguard the priest, would now look after him anyway. I look forward to seeing how their relationship continues to evolve. They are well developed characters but still possess enough mystery to be interesting.
The Japanese setting, and culture, is almost like a character itself. I enjoy reading historical fiction and mysteries because I always feel like I come away from each book having learned something, and that is certainly the case here. The class system and social customs, the honor-bound approach to every aspect of life, the various districts of Kyoto, and even the descriptions of the clothing and such are fascinating. Ms. Spann has obviously done her research, and her love of Japan shines through. What could come across as a dry history lecture is instead vividly presented, and I felt like I was there.
Flask of the Drunken Master is a first rate, methodically plotted and logically unfurled mystery. I did not want to put the book down. I recommend it to fans of historical mysteries and those who are interested in Japanese culture.