Jon F. Merz: The Kensei

When the press release for Jon F. Merz’ The Kensei came over the wire (and doesn’t that sound just the least bit retro?), I immediately e-mailed the Chief and said “It sounds weird enough to be interesting.” I mean, a vampire ninja detective story?

Lawson is 150 years old, a vampire “fixer” — among other things, he cleans up those vampires who start to get too obvious and keeps the clandestine relationship between vampires and humans clandestine — and he needs a vacation. In fact, he’s on his way for a nice bit of R&R in Japan, including some advanced training in ninjutsu — what we’d call “combined martial arts.” Just getting to Japan has been a trial — there was a side trip to the Philippines that got a little messy — and Lawson’s arrival is not without event. He manages to foil an assassination attempt while on the train to his hotel, but it turns out he wasn’t the target. Unfortunately, the assassin was — well, not exactly yakuza, in spite of the tattoo. His gang is much, much worse. His boss, a vampire known as “the Kensei” who supposedly died twenty years before, doesn’t like it when one of his employees winds up dead. Then Lawson’s colleague and sometime lover Talya, ex-KGB, shows up on a mission of her own. And then the Tokyo control, who unusually enough is a woman, winds up dead, and the detective in charge of that investigation turns out to have more than one iron in the fire.

I’m not sure where I come down on The Kensei. On the one hand, it is weird enough to be interesting — there’s something about a vampire ninja that has to be investigated — and the plot contains enough in the way of wrinkles to keep the story moving and the reader engaged. And, while the “exotic” locale — Japan — is handled well enough, this isn’t a travelogue. We get enough to set the scene and that’s about it. The whole ninjutsu mystique, if I can call it that, is pretty much on the same footing: there’s enough but it doesn’t take over.

What does take over is Lawson, and I’m not sure that’s all to the good. He’s the sort of stock wise-guy cynic who has graced the pages of noir detective fiction since the days of The Maltese Falcon, if not before. The problem is, that’s pretty much all he is. Perhaps it’s the result of this being the latest in a series, and I would have more sense of who Lawson is if I had read the preceding volumes (although I have to say that in other terms, The Kensei stands alone quite well). But I don’t get a sense of this man’s identity, no feel for his great age, no take on his way of looking at things.

And in spite of the premise and the milieu, there aren’t any real surprises here. The situations are pretty much as expected, up to and including the final confrontation between Lawson and the Kensei, which, although it takes place in a fairly unusual location, imparts a distinct sense of “I’ve read this before.”

Veering back to the other side of the fence, it was still enough fun that I’d be inclined to catch up on the series, although I don’t think I’d go out of my way to do it. It’s nice entertainment for an evening or so.

(St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)

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