Book: Sensei by John Donohue

Good first crime novel by an expert on martial arts

John Donohue
Onyx, 2004
ISBN: 0-451-41132-3
233 pages

In Sensei (Japanese for "teacher"), Connor Burke lives in Brooklyn and teaches at a rather obscure university farther out on Long Island. He's also a very advanced martial-arts student. When Japanese-born martial-arts instructors in America start being killed, it's a fair bet that he and his Japanese-born martial-arts instructor are going to get involved. As it happens, Burke's brother Mickey is a detective in the New York Police Department and he'd like some advice from Connor about one of the murders.

So, if the broad outlines of the plot are pretty clear from the start, how does the book work out in practice? Reasonably well, but there are flaws. The martial-arts parts are persuasive since the author is also a very advanced martial-arts student. It's good fun when the descriptions of someone doing difficult things with antique weapons include details that only someone who does that sort of thing would know.

Happily for me, there's a minimum of Oriental Mysticism to wade through. And there are some smiles to be had from the prose, as:

    He held up his empty beer can and looked at it as if he suspected
    evaporation as the culprit. (p. 79)

But there are also a few places where the prose is overwrought:

    Even in the washed-out light of that place, the tears in Mickey's eyes
    glittered like the last sparks of a dying star. (p. 123)

And it's not a sign that an author has his plotting under control when you read, two-thirds of the way through a crime novel, something like:

    The story Yamashita eventually told unfolded with a hypnotic
    cadence.... The tale spun out in starts and stops, a line of events
    anchored in his past and pulled painfully into his present. (p. 158)

And, sure enough, there follows a wodge of exposition just when you expect the plot to start moving along.

Still, the virtues outweigh the flaws here; this is a fine first novel and there's good fun to be had in reading it.

Posted: Sun - August 22, 2004 at 12:29   Main   Category: