By Dale Furutani

Morrow, July 1998, 210 pp. ($22.00)

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg (7/98)

In a backwater town run by a venal lawman and a self-absorbed county commissioner, a mysterious stranger arrives in time to discover the body of a murdered businessman. When the local authorities show no more interest in or ability to solve the murder than to handle the gang of outlaws terrorizing the area, the stranger takes time out of his personal quest to set things in the town straight.

The plot of an Alan Ladd western? The plot of a Dashiell Hammett short story? Actually, if you change "county commissioner" to "district lord," it's the plot of Dale Furutani's intriguing novel, DEATH AT THE CROSSROADS, set in Japan at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century. Matsuyama Kaze is a ronin, a samurai without a master, whose search for the kidnapped daughter of his late Lord takes him to the small mountain village of Suzaka. From the first chapter, Kaze is shown to be a wise and exceptional man, and indeed he is more than a match for everyone who opposes him in the course of the novel.

He happens upon the body of a murdered traveller moments after a local peasant, Jiro the charcoal seller, first finds it. Detained by the incompetent village magistrate, Kaze stays with Jiro, from whom he learns of the hard times the local district has experienced, largely at the hands of bandits, ever since a new District Lord was appointed two years earlier.

Kaze is not overly concerned about the death of the traveller; he must continue his search for his Lord's daughter. But a curious tale of a horse-riding demon, told at a roadside teahouse, sends him back to Suzaka, where he finds that he must clear first himself, then Jiro the charcoal seller, of the murder charge (which carries a sentence of crucifixion). Furutani has done well to set this novel in 1603. As he explains in an author's note, it was a time of great social upheaval, when local pockets of lawlessness could be found in areas where the strong central government of the just-established Tokugawa Shogunate had not yet gained control. Lawlessness -- or unjustly enforced laws, which amounts to the same thing -- provides a very effective background for the type of mean-streets mystery that DEATH AT THE CROSSROADS is.

This is not to say that it is not a very Japanese story. In customs, history, and setting, of course, but also in character motivation, in the denouement, and in the very solution of the mystery, Furutani presents a world that is uniquely Japanese, distinctly historical. The religious and cultural atmosphere, especially the peculiar institution of the samurai class, is a fundamental aspect of the novel. By and large, the exposition of culture is handled well, although here and there the research shows a little too clearly.

In many ways, though, Matsuyama Kaze has as much in common with Philip Marlowe as he does with the samurai of Kurasawa’s movies. He is, in Chandler's phrase, the best man in his world, a world run by men who see power as an end and the lives of others as a means to that end. Kaze is willing to take great risks to right a wrong that, while not directly his concern, represents what he sees as one of his society's fundamental failures. If his progressive attitudes towards women and peasants are doubtfully contemporary relative to that society, his courage and commitment are the marks of a timeless hero.

Despite similar themes and a high body count -- Kaze is, after all, a professional swordsman -- DEATH AT THE CROSSROADS is not written in a hard-boiled style. A quick read at 210 pages, it sets the atmosphere through realistic descriptions of the settings and interjections of different characters' histories and motivations. These passages, which fill in the back-story at the occasional expense of the main narrative, are a principal means Furutani employs to give the reader a better understanding of the culture in which the story occurs.

This is the first of a planned trilogy, following Matsuyama Kaze on his search for the young girl. His quest, though, has no bearing on the murder, so while the final chapter of the book builds a bridge to the second installment, there is a clear sense of resolution of the mysteries Kaze encounters at the crossroads leading to Suzaka village.

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