Friday, March 3, 2017

Book Review: Six Expressions of Death




As you are a students of the #Alt Right my beloved readers, you are capable of dealing with forbidden knowledge. In truth you seek it out as a moth does the flame.

Very well, here is a fragment of forbidden knowledge for you.

The Colonial Powers and their Colonial Possessions almost always formed a reciprocal bond.

Neither can ever entirely abandon the relationship. I was first made aware of this in Somalia when the United States was rather seriously backstabbed by the Italians. The reason was that the Italians still felt that Somalia was their backyard. The funny thing was that the Somalis felt the Italians were right to have a special interest in them.

India is another example. While the Indians are proud of their cultural identity, if you scratch the surface you will find a quiet reverence for Her Majesty. Elizabeth II was once their empress. While they will rail about the atrocities of the British Empire. Their relationship with Britain remains a special one.

The French and Algeria have the same kind of thing going.

Hell, look at America and the UK. The ties are often frayed but they are never entirely broken. The reciprocal bond always remains.

So why bring it up in a book review? Because Japan was in all but name the last of America's colonial possessions. After the surrender it, effectively became an American protectorate. Now we didn't use language like that not by 1945. But that is pretty much exactly what Japan was. The seat of power was not in the Diet and certainly not with the Emperor but at the Dai Ichi Mutual Insurance building. The occupation headquarters of Douglas MacArthur.

The Japanese liked Big Mac. As Shoguns go he wasn't all that blood thirsty and as for the few men that he did execute...well those were the guys that had gotten them into this mess in the first place, so no loss there. They liked their rulers to be remote and god-like and MacArthur liked his admirers to be polite and uncritical. By the time he left there was a small movement to make Japan the 49th state.

People of Nippon would themselves bridle at being described as a colony. After all they had a civilization that long predated that of the United States. Of course the peoples of Hindustan said the same thing about the British but they still play Cricket.

The Japanese for their part play Baseball.

Twenty years ago, I was stationed there for a few years. I had (at the time) a decent enough command of the language. I tooled around in a Toyota MR2. I felt compelled by loyalty to the Chicago Cubs to root for the routinely doomed Osaka Tigers. I followed enough Sumo that by the end of my tour, I had a feeling for why one Sumo wrestler was now handling himself like a Yokozuna but another just wasn't going to get past Komusubi stage of his career (sad). I had a favorite sushi-ya and looked down on Amerikan'otaku even though I technically qualified as one. I studied (briefly) Kendo and took up Isshin-ryƫ. I tried to learn Kanji and failed epically, so I got to find out what life as an illiterate feels like. Then there was Gas Panic Bar...

Yet for all of these things I was never a part of them. That simply wasn't possible. If you take up the ex-pat lifestyle in Europe long enough you can eventually fit in reasonably well. You'll always be the foreigner but you won't be the eternal alien.

That's not the case in Japan. You are never going to fit in no matter how long you live there. There simply is not a place for you and they aren't going to make one. There are some basic things intrinsic to the Japanese character that you will never feel bone deep. They honestly wouldn't like it if you could. You can admire their culture all you like but you can't be a part of it.  Not as a gaijin.

This is where I was coming from when I read and examined this book.

Six Expressions of Death is an excellent book but it is also a very special one. This is a multilayered mystery where the mystery frequently changes in mid stream.

It is the debut novel of Mojo Mori and as such it is surprisingly well constructed. This feels like a more practiced hand. Mojo seems to know his craft quite well.

The Six Expressions of Death refer to a samurai belief in the portent to be found in the face of one who has died. Those portents are dependent upon which expression is presented. This motif is woven skillfully through out the book.

The setting for this story is the closing years of the Warring States period. Takeda, Uesugi and Nobunaga are still fighting it out to decide who is going to be master. Toyotomi and Tokugawa, are alive but are young and of no real consequence just yet. It is a period well suited for intrigue, violent struggle, romance and betrayal. However there is an oppressive feel to this world because...well it is. Between typhoons, earthquakes, over population and a terrain that isn't generally well suited for agriculture but is often ideal for defense. Life had a tendency to be both short and hard. The author has carefully and adroitly woven a tapestry that presents this world.

This period was the twilight of the Samurai in most ways. In a few years the highly regulated peace of the Tokugawa regime would render their caste into something that was little more than an ornament.

It was also the golden age of the Ninja. While tales of their skills and abilities were drastically over blown during the Edo period, there was decidedly some fire beneath all that smoke. Intelligence gathering and special operations were much in demand. And the occasional sanctioned job was needed to now and then.

Six Expressions of Death initially presents itself as an old school historical mystery like the old Brother Cadfael mysteries but then proves itself to be part of the new as the layers of the story are peeled back like an onion presenting a more in depth narrative than was first presented.

The story is told in the third person but the point of view character shifts repeatedly.

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I liked how this book kicked off. It starts with, of course, a murder. That happens in murder mysteries, naturally but the victim in this case was the first point of view character. He was presented as a likable enough fellow and the audience is innately compelled to find him sympathetic. You come to know him at least a little bit and feel something for his plight. Consequently you are left feeling very curious about his death. You know the how of course but not the who nor most especially the why. You as an audience are now drawn in.

In the second chapter we meet our first detective. Diakawa Tadashi, a samurai who appears to be meet most of Raymond Chandler requirements as laid out in the Simple Art of Murder:

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
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He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks -- that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
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The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

Tadashi is stretched on a few of these points but that is mostly due to the circumstances of the world he inhabits. He is a poor Samurai but clearly one of noble character. He was summoned by a local village headman to investigate the murder of the man who was killed in the first chapter.

The initial appearance is that of a simple bandit killing although you as the audience knows that there was more to it than that. You are therefore pleased with Tadashi for seeing past the ruse almost immediately. This was quite an adept bit of storytelling by Mori.

Tadashi's daimyo holds a province that is close to the lands of both Takeda and Uesugi. Both of these two much more powerful lords covet the province and neither can afford to commit the resources necessary to conquer it without leaving themselves open to attack by the other. Tadashi's world exists on the edge of a kinfe.

It is however a very nicely detailed world. What I found particularly interesting was the shading and depth given to even minor characters. Mori has neatly avoided the worst pitfalls of stereotyping. This applies to his villains as well. Our third point of view character is one of them. He is in fact the murderer himself. You'd think that he would know why he murdered a man but you would be wrong. Our murderer it turns out is also a detective.

I will reveal no more of the plot than that.  Hopefully I have intrigued you.

Six Expressions of Death is great read. Filled with mystery, excitement,  a surprisingly Game aware romance and plenty of pulse pounding action. It's a terrific little page turner and I highly recommend it.

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