Zen Attitude, Sujata Massey, Harper, $13.95.
Sujata Massey is one of the more original and unique mystery writers working at the moment. Massey is original partly because of her voice, partly because of her characters, and partly because of her setting. Zen Attitude is about half way through Massey's Rei Shimura series - Rei, a half Japanese, half American woman living in Japan with a Scotsman - has so many uncertainties in her life it's sometimes a wonder she can get through the day. She's uncertain about her relationship with her lover, Hugh Glendinning; she's uncertain about her relationship with her new and wealthy client, Mrs. Mihori; and she's certainly unsure of the place Hugh's unruly brother, Angus, has in her life (and in her apartment) when he appears for an open ended stay.
None of this is written about in a precious way. Massey's take on Rei is so heartfelt you really are inside her head as she goes through her life, much as you sometimes may disagree with her choices, you can still understand why she's made them. Her relationship with Hugh is tricky - he feels an outsider (he's a Scot, he doesn't speak Japanese, he's tall, etc.) in the Japan she truly loves and has come to call home; she feels financially unequal to Hugh, who has an excellent job, while she ekes out a more precarious living as an antiques dealer; and she's really not sure what to do about Angus who is rude, loud and completely disruptive. He's a bit like a giant toddler thrown into Rei and Hugh's pleasant life with the same type of consequences.
The story is a dandy too - Rei is on the hunt for a particular type of tansu or marriage chest. The client wants a specific age and engravings on the tansu, as well as an excellent condition. Rei has driven all over Japan, it seems, hunting for the perfect tansu, but she checks out one last spot when her client, Mrs. Mihori, tells her there might be a good one there. There is indeed and Rei gets into a bidding war with another customer over it, spending far too much. When it's delivered to her apartment and she checks it over she finds the metal fittings have been changed out, radically changing the date of the piece, and she must confess her mistake to her now former customer. The story that follows involves several murders and Rei's unusual sojourn on the grounds of a Buddhist temple after an argument with Hugh.
Rei ends up financially wiped out, estranged from Hugh, and able to trust no one, including her former and powerful client Mrs. Mihori. One thing I like about Massey's books is that she never puts Rei into needless danger - Rei never goes, for example, into a dark and abandoned house on purpose - the dangers that come her way seem justly earned and somewhat believable. Through all her trials the gentle infusion of Japanese culture - and the author's clear love of it - shines through, and the lovely, poetic prose is a help toward the reader's own "zen attitude". If somehow you have missed this talented author it would behoove you to quickly rectify your reading omission!
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