The Ninja by Eric Lustbader
For 3000 years, love has been an art in the Orient. And so has Death
Here is the origin of Nicholas Linnear, half English, Half Oriental, who is about to enter a terrifying world of merciless assassins bound by the blackest codes of honour and skilled in the deadliest martial arts.
Caught between East and West, a past he can’t escape and a destiny he can’t avoid, he is trapped in a web of old lust and present passions that will converge on a terrifying moment of revelation and revenge…
Early this year I made the decision that I would try to re-visit some older books that I’ve enjoyed in the past. I was keen to see how well a novel stands the test of time. I think probably the toughest genre to avoid aging badly is thrillers. That’s why for this review I decided to re-read a novel that I remember being a favourite, The Ninja by Eric Lustbader.
Nicholas Linnear is a complex character, the product of two completely different cultures but not really belonging to either. There is a quiet stillness and an introspective quality to him that I like. Every action or comment that he makes seems measured and entirely appropriate. The reader is slowly drip fed details of his childhood and also the important relationships he had in his formative years, especially with his parents. Linnear grows up in post war Japan during a time of great upheaval, and this ever-changing environment leaves its mark on him. Initially, and I suppose from a Western perspective, he does possibly come across as somewhat stand-offish/aloof but as the story unfolds, the multiple layers to his character are revealed.
The other character I really enjoy in this novel is the police detective Lew Croaker. There is a sub plot involving an unsolved murder and Croaker is introduced as part of this. He has a slightly down at heel, world-weary outlook and I warmed to him immediately. When he first meets Nicholas their different attitudes to life spark off one another. Croaker’s introduction is a clever move on the author’s part. It gives Lustbader the opportunity to properly explain basic concepts of Eastern philosophy, for example the concept of face, as Croaker learns about them for the first time.
What really intrigues me most about this novel is the examination of the differing attitudes towards culture, religion, gender and sex. Lustbader is clearly fascinated by the fundamental differences between East and West. It’s the exploration of those differences that I think raise The Ninja above your standard by-the-numbers thriller.
The novel also has some first rate action as well. The skills of a ninja border on the almost supernatural and there are some great moments that illustrate the trained killer going about his deadly business. Throw in some suitably saucy sex scenes and you have an adult themed thriller that works on many levels.
How has The Ninja aged then? Not to badly as it turns out. I willing to concede that the chapters set in “the present’ do feel a bit dated. That said there is no doubt that Lustbader’s writing does effortlessly tap into the zeitgeist of the multiple time periods in which the novel is set. Chronologically the story covers around forty years, from the tail end of World War II right up until the early nineteen eighties.
Thinking about it the notion of tradition versus change is another of the novel’s main motifs. The ways of the secret societies of Japan are in direct conflict with the modern, Western way of life. Again it’s a surprise that this sort of insight can be discovered and a book that is packaged as nothing more than a standard thriller. On that particular point, I did notice is that the book blurb on the back cover really doesn’t do the book justice. It just about manages to convey the bare bones of the story. Totally avoids mentioning some of the most compelling elements of the novel. Based on the blurb alone I can imagine that many people wouldn’t consider picking this novel up. That’s a damn shame because, as far as thrillers go, it’s rather brilliant.
The Ninja is just the beginning of Linnear’s journey. There are another five books in the Nicholas Linnear/Ninja Cycle, I’ve read them all, and I think they are well worth investing in. They are a great blend of action, adventure, philosophy and history.
I read the Harper Collins edition that is available via Amazon.