Thursday, December 26, 2019

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road

Susan Spann, Ghost of the Bamboo Road
Copyright © 2019 Susan Spann
Seventh Street Books
ISBN 978-1-63388-550-9

Let me begin with this:  I’d read around a third of Ghost of the Bamboo Road yesterday when I stopped to eat dinner and do come chores. Around 8:30, I picked it up again, planning to read for an hour or so before going to bed.  Around 11, I finished the book, having not gotten out of my chair.

From which you may deduce (correctly) that I was truly immersed in the story.

That was not altogether a surprise to me.  Having read the previous 6 books in the series,[1] I was prepared to enjoy mystery and the characters.  And, obviously, I was not disappointed.

Hiro Hattori (not his “real” name), a ninja, has been hired by someone who chooses to remain anonymous, to protect Father Mateo, a Catholic priest in Japan, trying to spread the word.  Or, at any rate, his words.  Hiro is skeptical of the mission, but takes his assignment seriously.  He has, over time, come to respect and admire Mateo, even as he remains skeptical of his mission.

In this addition to the o-going saga, Hiro, Mateo, Ana (his Japanese housekeeper), and Gato (the cat, of course) are on their way from Kyoto to Edo.  Rumors have spread that the power behind the Emperor plans to destroy the ninja and kuniochi (the female equivalent) and move the capitol from Kyoto to Edo.[2]  They have stopped in this village to warn Emiri (a kunoichi residing there) of the necessity of going into hiding.

Almost immediately after their arrival, the mother of the innkeeper is murdered; many of the villagers believe that she was killed by a yūrei—ghost—who has been wronged by someone in the village and who seeks revenge.  Neither Hiro nor Mateo is willing to accept that yūrei exist, let alone that they can kill.  Mateo wishes to remain, at least briefly, to try to discover the killer (which, really, means to have Hiro discover the killer); Hiro believes that his mission is more important.  And, as Emiri cannot be found, he is in favor of leaving immediately for Edo.

Of course they stay.  And of course they become involved (partly because Ana is accused of stealing a trove of silver coins).  Their investigation, and the accusation against Ana, brings them in contact with all the villagers (including a couple of unexpectedly interesting and astute men), and with a yamabushi—a hermit/holy man—who lives in the forest.  And, of course, they do discover the murderer.

And if it seems all to “of-course-ish” in my summary, it’s anything but in the reading.  Hiro and Mateo are a good pairing, and they have become close friends.  The villagers, including the resident Samurai, are not just here to advance the plot, but are people with lives that have been disrupted, lives that they hope to be able to recover.  

Of the 7 books so far in the series, this has the least sword-play and violence, and the deepest exploration of character.  (Not that the first 6 ignore character.)

If you have not yet found Spann’s work, I encourage you to seek it out.  If you are already a reader, I probably don’t have to encourage you to read this one.  It’s a fine book.

[1]  Claws of the Cat; Blade of the Samurai; Flask of the Drunken Master; The Ninja’s Daughter Betrayal at Iga;;and Trial on Mount Koya.

[2] Tokyo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols

Nicholas Meyer, The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols
Copyright © 2019 Nicholas Meyer
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books
ISBN 978-1-250-22895-6

This is the fourth extension of the Holmes and Watson saga by Meyer, and, while it has its points, and ultimately makes its point clear, it is not, in my opinion, a particularly successful addition to the canon.

Watson has married (for the third? time), to the sister of Constance Garnett (noted translator of Russian (and other) works of literature.  And Holmes has returned from seclusion.  And Mycroft Holmes has called upon Holmes to retrieve a document—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—that had been taken from one of Mycroft’s agents (and the agent killed).  Watson, of course, joins Holmes in this quest, as does Anna Walling (a Russian émigré, married to an American millionaire), to act as interpreter for Holmes on this quest.

The quest is ultimately successful, in that the Protocols are found, and a confession of their being a document concocted for the Russian secret police.  But it is a failure, in that the Protocols continue to be disseminated [recently, as Meyer notes in his “Afterword.” Being published in Louisiana (2000) and California (2002)]. 

The book, as I noted above, is not (for me) a success, for all that the message that Meyer wished us to receive is an important one.  Holmes behaves in very non-Holmesian ways.  The relationship between Holmes and Anna seems out of character for Holmes, if not for her.  And, in keepng with a difficulty I have had with the three earlier books (The Seven Percent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer):  Mixing actual people and events with Holmes and Watson just does not work for me (although it might for you). 

Leaving my personal reaction to incorporating the fictional Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes and the equally fictional Dr. John Watson), there are other issues.  As I said, Holmes behaves in some very un-Holmesian behaviors, the most noticeable of which is (spoiler ahead) torturing a confession out of the original publisher of the Protocols.  And the first half to two-thirds of the book drags noticeablty.
But it deals with a significant issue. Both in the world of the early 1900s and, as is unfortunately all to obvious, in the world of the 21st century.  Anti-Semitism remains a potent force, and a destructive force, everywhere in the world.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Copyright © 2017 Jason Fagone
Dey St. (An Imprint of William Morrow)
ISBN 978-0-06-243051-9

The story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband William Friedman, who were pioneer cryptanalysts for the United States.  Elizebeth came from a Quaker family in rural Indiana, William from a Jewish family in New York.  Their meeting, which both at the time and in retrospect, seems to have been highly unlikely, was at a very strange household/research facility owned and operated by an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan on his estate just outside Geneva, Illinois.  Elizebeth (a graduate of Hillsdale College) was hired, in 1916, to work on his Shakespeare project—that was t try to prove that Francis Bacon actually wrote the plays and had left encrypted clues in the First Folio.  But an extraordinary range of other projects were also being researched there.

William was, initially, doing genetic experiments on fruit flies.  But fairly quickly they both discovered that they had a facility for deciphering secret messages.  And they both quickly came to believe that the Bacon project was a dead end.  And William fell in love, and they got married.  They left Fabyan’s establishment, and fairly quickly found jobs in Washington-William as a military code and cipher expert during World Was I, and Elizebeth as doing similar work for the Customs office (deciphering messages exchanged by smugglers, and then bootleggers).

Unquestionably their most important work came during World War II.  They were working separately, and could rarely even discuss their work.  Between them, though, they made a significant impact on Germany’s espionage and sabotage campaigns (in Elizebeth’s case, in South America).  

This is a complex an interesting tale, and Fagone generally tells it well.  He is not a particularly graceful writer, though the story is compelling enough that I mostly overlooked that aspect of the book (although things do drag occasionally).  If anything is a persistent weakness, it is the description and discussion of the code-breaking work itself.  That is a largely technical subject and not especially gripping.  But it is a bit of a hole in the narrative.

Among the other people who have important places in the story, almost all come off well, appearing as dedicated, hard-working people doing, in some cases, dangerous jobs.  One person, however, comes off very badly…J. Edgar Hoover.  He appears as an ambitious attention and credit grabber is cares primarily for his own reputation and secondarily for that of the FBI.  

As I was preparing to write these comments, I discovered a second recent book focusing on Elizebeth Friedman, G. Stuart Smith’s A life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, published by McFarland in 2007.  It’s considerably shorter than Fagone’s book (and also, oddly, more expensive).  And the description of it (on Amazon) suggests that William’s part in the story is downplayed or ignored.

If you are at all interested in the part that decoding played in the war, Fagone’s book will, I think, be the place to start for American efforts.  There’s also an extensive literature about the British efforts at Bletchley park, with which I am not familiar (although I can recommend Robert Harris’s Enigma, which, as a novel, probably plays a bit loosely with the facts).