The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils
by Lensey Namioka
Wondering ronin Zenta and Matsuzo take the “interesting” job of serving as bodyguards for Father Luis, a Portuguese missionary. When their neighbor, Lord Fujkikawa, is murdered by a gun – a gun that only the Portuguese have access to – Zenta and Matsuzo must use all their resources to find the real culprit. Was it Fujikawa’s hot-tempered former chief bodyguard? Was it one of the monks of Mt. Hiei? Was it rival warlord Nobunaga?
And how many people will wind up dead before Zenta and Matsuzo uncover the truth?
Namioka’s little book really confuses me. It’s relatively short – a scant 200 pages – and I understand that it’s been used as a reading book for sixth or seventh graders. In some respects, that makes a lot of sense. This volume was written back in the 70’s, before a lot of Japanese culture became relatively well-known in the States. Because of that, a lot of the culture is explained simply and well. The characters are well-defined. The mystery continues to move from one red herring to the next, always developing more and more clues. In many ways, this would be an appropriate book for that age group.
Yet, especially near the end as the real killer is revealed, the book suddenly becomes bloody. It’s not a gore-fest by any means, but it’s more violent than I would expect a gradeschool to be using as a reading text. While it does explain foreign terms, they do bunch up, which means slow readers might have some problems.
Which means I’m not entirely sure who this book is aimed at. It “feels” like a late grade school, early high school audience, but the subject matter and the complexity of the mystery feels older than that. Perhaps it’s aimed at advanced readers? Maybe since the time this was written, my expectations of that age group has just gone down?
For myself, I enjoyed the quick read. The mystery did keep me going long enough that I enjoyed the twists and turns. It’s set a little before what I know best of Japanese history-based fiction (chief among my informational sources: Lone Wolf and Cub and Usagi Yojimbo. Don’t judge me. They’re both awesome.) – which means I wasn’t as familiar with some of the culture or the political situation of the time. I never felt lost, though. Namioka does a good job of explaining the culture and so on without ever talking down to the reader.
Zenta and Matsuzo serve as the main point of view characters. It was fun seeing the Portuguese from their eyes. To them, European armor and clothing are so strange and impractical! And passages comparing a rapier to samurai swords are simply delicious.
If you’re looking for a fast read, go ahead give this a look. It’s not a deeply involved mystery, but it is a good plot and fun characters.