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Wednesday, 12 December 2007 00:00

The way of the sword

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The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2007. 384 pages.

Eight seconds.

Eight seconds, according to Stephen Hunter in his latest novel The 47th Samurai (13:978-0-7432-3809-0, $26), is the amount of time it takes a human being to bleed out and die after having his guts carved open or a limb chopped off by a samurai’s sword.

Hunter makes this point many times in this latest saga of Bob Lee Swagger, the son of war hero and state policeman Earl Swagger, and a hero in his own right. In this tightly wound suspense Swagger meets Philip Yano, whose father fought Earl at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. Yano comes to America and to Bob Lee Swagger seeking his father’s sword after discovering that Swagger had knowledge of the sword. Swagger eventually finds the missing sword, returns it to Yano in his native Japan, and is on his way back to the United States when Yano and his family are murdered and the sword stolen.

Swagger then decides to remain in Japan and search for the killers of his new friend. Soon he discovers a link between the sword and the yakuza, the gangs of Japan’s underworld. As Swagger pursues the murderers, he befriends Susan Okada, an acid-tongued, American-born Japanese who works both in a diplomatic capacity and as a CIA agent, and Nick Yamamoto, a brash, ambitious journalist who knows his way around the mob. While Nick digs for dirt on the yakuza — he eventually discovers a political as well as a criminal connection to the sword — and Susan runs interference for Swagger on the diplomatic front, Swagger himself takes Japanese sword lessons and prepares to beat the criminals at their own game.

To give away more would be to give away too much of the intense, driving plot of this excellent story. Though we suspect that Swagger won’t die here — he is, after all, the hero of Point of Impact and Time to Hunt — Stephen Hunter does provide several surprise turns to his tale. Fans will be delighted to find that Hunter’s penchant for creating suspense, as demonstrated in Pale Horse Coming, Dirty White Boys, Havana, and other books, remains keen here.

In addition to its gripping suspense, The 47th Samurai also undertakes to educate its readers in the ways of the Japanese, particularly in regard to the culture of the samurai. From Hunter we learn the intricacies of sword-making, some of the fighting techniques employed by the samurai, and the influence still wielded on the Japanese imagination by these sturdy warriors. Dr. Otowa, an expert on the sword and its culture who takes Swagger under his wing, advises Swagger to train briefly with an expert swordsman whom he knows.

“You should spend a week with him and listen to what he has to say. Or you should go home. Those are your only choices. ‘Steel cuts flesh/steel cuts bone/steel does not cut steel,’ as Musashi said. Become steel or get cut, that’s the world you’re entering.”

Hunter introduces us to the warriors who lived by such a code as samurai, and of those who try to live by the code today. Through various characters we hear the story of the attack of the 47 Ronin (47 samurai also fight the yakuza at the end of the novel). We meet the princes and warriors whose lives inspired both ancient Japanese poets and the samurai films made today in Japan.

Besides these excursions into Japanese cut-and-slash, Hunter also gives us a cool, long look at Japanese culture today. Through Hunter’s eyes we see the clash between xenophobia and the demands of the world; the urban-tech, glittering high-rises and the Japanese love of gadgets; the reverence for family alongside the powerful and ubiquitous Japanese sex industry. Though Hunter clearly finds much to admire about the Japanese, he does not hesitate to throw a spotlight onto the darker corners of that society.

One test of any novel is whether we take something from it other than a few hours of easy entertainment. When we finish The 47th Samurai, we leave feeling not only royally entertained, but also as if we’ve carried a tiny piece of Japan away with us.

•••

Two other new books of fiction have recently arrived in the offices of The Smoky Mountain News. First is Best New American Voices 2008: Fresh Fiction from the Top Writing Programs (978-0-15-603149-3, $15), a compilation of stories from some of America’s finest young writers. Gathered from writing programs and summer conferences, Best New American Voices gives readers a look at writers who are just coming into their talent. Competition for inclusion in this volume was fierce, and the high quality of the stories and the chance to look at some of tomorrow’s literary stars make this book worth a look.

British writer Andrew Martin has written another novel featuring Jim Stringer, English sleuth and railway detective. Set in the winter of 1906, The Lost Luggage Porter (978-0-15-603074-8, $14) sets Stringer on the trail of a gang of railway thieves, who in turn threaten to harm Stringer’s wife. Martin’s Jim Stringer series — the other two books are The Necropolis Railway and The Blackpool Highflyer — should appeal to readers who love trains or well-written suspense stories. This fast-paced tale will be available to the public in January 2008.

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