Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey

Few thrills equal the pleasure of finding that an enjoyable crime novel is one of a decad.  Sujata Massey’s  Zen Attitude is the second book in the  Rei Shimura series, and it’s a fine caper indeed.  Rei is a half-Japanese, half-American (white) woman  who has an unerring instinct for finding and creating trouble.  When the beautiful chest for which Rei spent a bomb turns out to be fake–no, not that kind of chest, this one is an antique tansu cabinet–Rei is in serious financial trouble. But Rei’s troubles really take off when the dealer who sold her the chest is murdered; she’d better figure out what’s going on before she becomes the next victim.  Meanwhile, Rei must deal with the disintegration of her love-life due to her boyfriend’s blind affection for his layabout young brother–who seems to have moved in permanently.

Rei is the sort of person who couldn’t sneeze without a masked figure handing her a blood-stained handkerchief.  With embroidery that hides a message. Made from special cotton that grows in just one valley in Egypt… yes, the plot occasionally feels slightly forced and formulaic, but on the whole,  I enjoyed the book very much.  I was especially taken with Massey’s depiction of Japan, and, in particular, Rei’s position in this country–as an insider who can never quite become part of the system, Rei is excellently located as an observer of Japanese customs and culture. Massey’s writing is keen and fresh when describing the interior of a local police station, or the social and legal conventions of a fender-bender.

Together we surveyed the results of our collision. The truck’s damage appeared minimal: a bit of the Windom’s shiny black paint had rubbed onto his fender. But my left taillight was smashed. The driver picked delicately at the remaining glass chips, wrapped them up in a tissue and handed them to me.

“Domo sumimasen deshita.” The man’s formal apology startled me before I remembered that under Japanese law, the vehicle hitting the other is automatically at fault.

“I’m sorry, too. I was distracted.”

“It is solely my fault. And look at what I’ve done to your beautiful car.” The man’s voice cracked. I realized then that he was probably worried about getting into an accident while driving a company vehicle. I was going to reassure him that I wouldn’t sue, but he already had his hand in his wallet.

“What about the paint on your truck? Are you sure you won’t have trouble at work?”

He looked at his fender and shook his head. “It is ordinary depreciation they will not notice. But I must reimburse you. I will not leave until I do so!”

I had been drifting. He had been nosing into my lane. I supposed we both were at fault. I took the money without looking at it, still feeling guilty. “If you give me your address, I can send you a copy of the bill, and any change if you need it.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself!” He had jumped back into the truck again. Since no names or document information had been exchanged, he could rest securely and believe that the matter had ended.

Interesting secondary characters including a failed judo champion and a handsome monk further energize Rei’s adventures. While these characterizations are sometimes skimpy, Rei is really well done. I like her mix of brashness and wisdom.  I like her pride and her niceness and her energy.  I like  the judgement she shows in accepting some of the constraints  Japanese society places upon her and bucking others. No, I don’t want to be friends with Rei–I’d probably be coshed and kidnapped (and then saved and rewarded, but much later) because of our association. But I do want to read about her.  My library houses nine of the ten Shimura books; huzzah!

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