Aspen TImes Weekly book review: ‘Flask of the Drunken Master’ |

Aspen TImes Weekly book review: ‘Flask of the Drunken Master’

by Andrew Travers


‘Flask of the Drunken Master’

Susan Spann

290 pages, hardcover: $26.99

Minotaur Books, 2015

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Association’s 2015 Writer of the Year Susan Spann injects some refreshing life into the gumshoe mystery genre by turning back the clock 500 years and taking readers to 16th-century Japan.

“Flask of the Drunken Master,” the latest in Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series, pairs the ninja detective Hiro Hattori with his sidekick, the Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Mateo, as they attempt to solve a murder and exonerate an innocent man.

As the novel opens, a local brewer in 1565 Kyoto is arrested for murder. A rival of his has been found dead, with a flask of his sake nearby. It’s up to Hiro and Father Mateo to find the real killer before the brewer is executed.

Over the span of a few days, they find suspects and motives among the feuding warlords, samurai and shinobi of a vividly rendered Kyoto.

Spann cleverly uses the Japanese caste system and complexities of 16th-century society as a plot device. She keeps the reader guessing up to the end, and moves the twisting plot along rapidly, but the detective story is clearly built on meticulous research of Japanese history and the rivalries among merchants and underworld money-lenders, rice sellers and brewers.

Following the partnership between the ninja Hiro and the priest Mateo adds a fascinating dimension to the story. Their differing belief systems and perspectives on morality clash as the pair attempts to crack the case.

And though “Flask of the Drunken Master” is a page-turning beach read, its illuminating use of historical Japan as a setting makes it a less disposable and forgettable read than most of the genre fiction out there.

The book is the third in the Shinobi series, following “Claws of the Cat” (2013) and “Blade of the Samurai” (2014).