Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Reviews: The 47th Samurai, The Unscratchables

The 47th Samurai
by Stephen Hunter
I like Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger novels. This novel came out a few years ago but I just got around to reading it a few months back. I've read books in the series both before and after this one but generally Hunter's writing style is such that most of the books can be read on their own. Bob Lee Swagger aka Bob The Nailer is a fair minded, prickly, stubborn, direct and unfailingly polite old coot Vietnam War veteran Marine gunny sergeant who has a knack for getting himself wrapped up in trouble. He remains among the world's deadliest snipers, even at his advanced age. Swagger comes from a long line of tough guys, some morally good, some otherwise, all of whom have uncanny speed, scary aptitude with firearms, and an often underestimated intelligence. Although Swagger looks, sounds like and frankly is an Arkansas hick, he's also something more than that. So I was predisposed to like this book and I mostly did. The problem however was that suspension of disbelief was stretched. In his books, Hunter has provided well researched explanations of military and gun culture, gun mechanics and the various traits that allow some men to react immediately in deadly situations while other people are standing around. Hunter has explained that although the Swaggers do have that extra something special in terms of speed, cunning and aggression, NONE of that would mean anything without years of dull repetitive practice and real life experience. This includes weapons practice and the use and internalization of applied physics, chemistry and biology.

A sniper must account for gravity's effects on the bullet. He must know exactly where to place the bullet to achieve a single shot, single kill outcome. He must account for wind, bullet weight, humidity and even the rotation of the earth. He needs an instinctive working knowledge of trigonometry and calculus. He must be able to remain still for long periods of time while waiting for the target. Regardless of a man's natural talent, it takes time to achieve the professional skill level that someone like Bob Lee Swagger possesses. When Bob Lee Swagger picks up a gun, it's just an extension of his will. 

The gun is hardly the only such tool which requires dedication and practice. It requires an investment of time and resources to master any tool or art. In this book, however, Swagger is, in a relatively short period of time, able to become deadly with the quintessential Japanese sword, the katana. This is like The Matrix's Trinity or Neo downloading the information they need to fly helicopters or perform martial arts. It didn't really work for me. In fact it was ridiculous. You might like the guitar and have natural musical ability. But no matter how intense your desire or how skilled your teacher, two weeks of training won't turn you into Jimi Hendrix.

As the title hints, this book references the classic story of the 47 Ronin, recently adapted into a motion picture starring Keanu Reeves. Bob's father Earl Swagger, was a WW2 war hero, who received medals and honors for his actions on Iwo Jima. At Iwo Jima he may have killed an equally honorable Japanese officer, Captain Hideki Yano. Captain Yano's son Phillip has sought out Bob Lee Swagger. He bears no malice. Both he and Bob Lee are ex-military. They commiserate over war's foolishness and their much missed fathers. Phillip Yano is looking for his father's sword. Well, Bob Lee Swagger doesn't remember any sword but then again his father rarely talked about the war. But out of respect as well as interest in having something to do Bob Lee finds the missing Yano sword via his aging network of family and old Marine buddies. Bob Lee insists upon visiting Japan to return the sword personally to Yano and his family. This he does, even though Bob Lee's wife worries that he's getting into something again. Yano is something of a sword expert. He determines that his father's sword is not actually a regular Japanese Army sword but something that is much older and much more valuable. Shortly after Bob Lee has returned the sword however, Yano and his family are slaughtered. The sword is stolen. Inconceivably, the Japanese authorities are dragging their feet. The embassy tells Swagger to go home.

Well sir, nobody does that to Bob Lee Swagger's friends. This kicks off a detective/action/crime/revenge adventure that involves high conspiracies, dangerous Yakuza who are contemptuous of the hairy gaijin, and the aforementioned gaijin trying his best to learn how to kill with the sword as efficiently as he does with the gun. And oh yes in training ,Swagger has to avoid getting badly beaten by a ten yr old girl. You might think that guns would make swords completely superfluous. In close quarters though, especially with the advantage of skill or surprise, a bladed weapon might win more often than one would think. Swagger is occasionally assisted by a Japanese-American woman with her own interests that don't always align with those of Swagger. It's not that kind of relationship though as Swagger is happily married and doesn't cheat. This was a fun read if you enjoy these types of books.

The Unscratchables

by Cornelius Kane
I like old noir detective stories, whether they be told in radio, print or television. The bad guys are bad, the dames are playing both sides against the middle and the good guys can handle anything with their trusty .45. This book is both a homage to all those old time detective stories and a parody of them. It can be enjoyed straight but of course the hook is that the characters in the story are dogs or cats. Yes you see the primary character in the story is Crusher McNash, a bull terrier detective who likes nothing more than doing things the old school way and putting fear into criminals or suspects. If you give him any barkback, well that's when you learn why they call him Crusher. When two dead Rottweiler gangsters are pulled out of the river, Crusher wonders if a new syndicate is making a move in The Kennel or if other rival hoodlums (Shepherds? Dobermans?) got the jump on the Rotties.
One thing he's not sniffing for is the involvement of a cat. But when forensics, headed by an old Hound who does not like Crusher tells him that it was a cat who did the killing, Crusher can't believe it. This doesn't fit with the other evidence. Crusher's beagle squad can't find traces of any cat on the scene. But when other dogs start to die including the Doggywood actor Jack Russell Crowe, the police chief has had enough. He and Crusher go way back. But the Chief has no desire to lose his job and wind up sniffing luggage on the airport beat again. It's an election year. President GoodBoy can't afford any heat. The Chief brings in the FBI, over Crusher's vehement objections. The FBI (that is the Feline Bureau of Investigation) sends the prissy, highly intelligent, cultured and much more dangerous than he looks Cassius Lap, a Siamese cat agent, to work with the blue collar and anti-cat bigot Crusher.

Of course the not so dynamic duo will have to get over their mutual dislike for each other to shake the pillars of heaven. They make the fur fly from Kathattan to the Kennels and all places in between in their search for the cat serial killer. This book is packed full of satire, puns and parody. It's an easy read and even pulls in some current personalities that you will recognize. One thing that stood out is that just as our primary sense is sight and many of our metaphors and sayings have to do with eyes or vision, a dog's primary sense is smell so most of the quips or metaphors in the Unscratchables have to do with nose or odors.
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