When I coined the term kung fu noir in connection with martial arts thrillers such as my 2007 title The Cutting Season, there were few titles in the category. Perhaps the works of Eric Van Lustbader (Jian, etc.) might apply, but they really felt more like historical romps through an Asian landscape than exemplars of what might be considered pugilist procedurals. As the term implies, kung fu noir titles meld accurate and well-informed hand-to-hand action scenes with the weltanschauung of a lone, sometimes disenfranchised protagonist who cleaves to a code of conduct born of a different time and place, persevering in the pursuit of a martial skill set that may seem more anachronistic than relevant, more quixotic than practical.
In the last seven years, kung fu noir has blossomed, primarily through the offices of YMAA Publication Center. More martial styles than simply Chinese kung fu are engaged these days, though the authors of these books tend still to be seasoned martial artists looking to share their passion in a creative way with the martial arts community. Not all of them aspire to higher literary qualities or seek broader appeal, but one YMAA author whose work seems to me to be edging into the larger category of action thriller, and is therefore more deserving of a larger readership, is John Donohue, a martial arts practitioner, historian, and professor of anthropology.
Donohue’s latest work is Enzan — The Far Mountain (YMAA July 2014). The protagonist, the author’s repeat character, Dr. Burke, is a devotee of a Japanese bushido style that includes bare handed fighting, weapons work, and just a whiff of ninjutsu. Burke’s training is traditional, brutal, complete, and redolent of the traditional relationship of student and sensei, a theme Burke comes back to again and again as, presumably, the author works through his own experiences with his teacher or teachers. For reasons that would spoil the story to reveal, this particular novel represents a pinnacle point in Burke’s arc of character, and in the trajectory of his relationship with his sensei.
The basic story is that a young girl, a member of a powerful and well connected Japanese family, has gone missing — strayed is perhaps a better term — and a scion of that family requests Burke’s assistance in bringing her back into the fold. Burke’s motivation for helping, and what he learns as that motivation becomes more complex and multilayered, serves as the backbone of a story that is, as are so many tales of this type, all about duty, loyalty, and of course family.
In terms of structure, the story proceeds through a standard three acts. There is a predictable, violent denouement, de rigeur for the genre, and it is nicely crafted. The author is particularly adept at bringing in information from multiple senses when describing martial action:
“I fell against a post and snow spilled down from the roof above us. My hands scrabbled desperately, closing around the hatchet just as he reached me. I could hear the whoosh of the axe blade coming at me. I sunk down under the attack….
“Because here’s the thing about fighting in general and fighting in the snow in particular: Time is your enemy. Your heart is racing and you’re panting. The lactic acid is building up in your muscles, slowing you down. And in the snow your footing never certain, all the cold weather gear protects the targets, and the cold stiffens the fingers and makes your grip weak.”
If the action sequences are solid and Burke himself has had time, over a few novels to develop dimensional thickness, the supporting characters presented are a bit less satisfying. The author does strives to lift them beyond cardboard targets for Burke’s stick and feet, but the results are mixed and often, when they are successful, are so as the result of didactic prose that can, at times, be a bit heavy-handed. The wayward young woman and her father, for example, achieve three-dimensionality only because we are told they have it rather than shown, and the character whom the author would have us believe is most to be feared — a thug whom he tries to reveal through his actions (a shadowy chase through the streets of New York City is most notable in this regard) — does not come quite far enough into the light for us to chew satisfactorily upon him, to savor him as the bringer of Burke’s worst nightmare, his genuine, ultimate nemesis.
What makes this book worth the review, and worth your reading time, is, in the end, none of the usual ingredients already covered, but rather Donohue’s wise, asides, particularly during the first third of the book, regarding martial arts, Japanese culture, and Zen influences:
“There’s a lot written about the martial arts; all these complicated ideas about transcending the self, a dense thicket of words and description. It’s cool and calming, the promise of an experience of measured beauty….Step out with me on the hard floor of a practice session. No incense here, just the smell of heated bodies; no changing, simply the grunt of effort and the thwack when a blow hits home.
“And losing the self? Please. There’s sublimation, for sure. Training is a heavy yoke….The reasons we train are varied, but in the end they are deeply and depressingly similar. Skill gives us control and the illusion of a manageable universe. Achievement brings approval. Effort is penance….”
“I knew what I was feeling–haragei. It’s the weird sixth sense that the Japanese believe is a hallmark of the advanced martial artist They say that with haragei, you can sense the skill of an opponent just by being in close proximity to him.”
It is these insights, sometimes merely perceptive but occasionally genuinely profound, that lend Enzan its true promise–namely to render traditional martial arts practice as a way of living relevant to the warp and woof of the modern world. Doing so lifts John Donohue’s work into the mainstream of crime/adventure fiction.