The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter

“It’s a war thing. I’m a war guy, he’s a war guy. His dad, my dad, war guys. Us war guys, we’re all connected. So I picked up an obligation. It’s something ancient and forgotten and not in existence no more. Lost and gone, a joke, something from those silly sword-fight movies. Something samurai.”

The 47th Samurai, Stephen Hunter’s latest Bob Lee Swagger novel, centers on probably the most ridiculous premise I’ve ever encountered in a thriller.

I loved it.

I think this may be my favorite Bob Lee Swagger book in the whole series. Which is saying a lot.

What do you do if you’re out working in your meadow, and a car approaches, and out comes a Japanese gentleman, a military veteran, who informs you that, judging from the records, your father probably killed his father at Iwo Jima? And he asks your help in locating his father’s military sword, which disappeared at the same time?

Well, if you’re Bob Lee Swagger, you start rooting through your father’s effects, and then make a series of phone calls and visits, until you’ve located the thing. And you carry it back to Japan personally, as a surprise for your new friend.

And what do you do if your new friend and his family are then brutally murdered?

You go to the crime scene, make a spectacle of yourself trying to give information to the police, and get yourself expelled from the country.

Then you hole up for a while, watching old samurai movies and reading everything you can find about Japanese tradition. You go back again with a false passport. And you learn to use a sword.

Now that’s the ridiculous part. Hunter expects us to believe that old Bob Lee, about sixty now, is capable of picking up enough technique in a few weeks to hold his own against trained yakuza. Hunter explains that Bob Lee is gifted with incredible reflexes, and grants him a generous supply of low tricks and lucky breaks. It pushes credibility, but Hunter makes it work. And the final stratagem Bob Lee uses against his chief enemy (in a scene described with all the delicacy of a Japanese watercolor) has been elegantly set up for the reader, and is entirely believable.

Now you know I’m a sword guy, in the sense of being an old fat man who fools around with blunt broadswords. And you know (if you’ve been paying attention) that I resent the whole samurai/mystical/katana/way-of-the-warrior business, which I think has been overblown and mythologized.

But this book caught me anyway. Caught me like a fish. That same Chris Matthews thrill that I’ve always felt when swords get drawn in movies possessed me here, and took complete possession of me. I loved (almost) every page. I understood, in my amateur’s fashion, every move and stroke of the blades. And if you can read the final scene of the book without tearing up, you’re a tougher hombre than I am.

I note from the Amazon reader reviews that there have been a lot of negative responses to The 47th Samurai. I don’t get that. I give it my highest recommendation. Parental cautions for language, adult subjects and violence apply.

4 thoughts on “The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter”

  1. heh

    yeah, I did a year of fencing and just, uh, scratched the surface.

    But. I am not the 47th Ronin reincarnated, am I?

    Gambotte masu!

    BTW, for what it’s worth, I agree. Outlandish as the learning curve was, this is my favorite Bob Lee Swagger so far. Night of Thunder (the new one) is OK, but just doesn’t reach this height.

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