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Sensei: A Thriller    by John Donohue order for
by John Donohue
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2003 (2003)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

John Donohue has written an excellent debut novel centered on the martial arts, on which topic he previously wrote four non-fiction books - he also holds two black belts himself. That expertise gives depth, interest and momentum to an engaging and engrossing thriller, told with wit, humor and just enough attitude.

The serial killer signs himself Ronin, a name which means 'Wave Man' in Japanese - that is a samurai without a master. His targets are Japanese masters of the martial arts and he kills them in North American cities. His motivation remains obscure until late in the story. The protagonist, Dr. Connor Burke, is called 'Professor' in the reclusive Brooklyn dojo in which he trains in the sword arts under Yamashita Sensei, a tough, challenging master who 'believes that tact is an impediment to serious training.'

Burke comes from a large Irish American family and his elder brother Micky is a cop. When African American jujutsu instructor Mitch Reilly is murdered after a brief run-in at Yamashita's dojo, Burke consults to his brother's investigation. Through the Bloomingston university where he works as an adjunct instructor, Burke ends up writing descriptive material for an art exhibit run by shady karate tournament promoter Bobby Kaye. It is at Kaye's Samurai House display of rare Japanese weapons that Reilly is killed.

As the investigation proceeds, Micky Burke begins to suspect Yamashita of hiding knowledge about 'a nut job on the loose who gets off starring in his own Jackie Chan snuff film.' Soon the Professor's loyalties are torn, between Micky Burke and his Sensei, especially after a dearth of information brings Connor, his brother and Micky's partner into an 'electric brush with death's close passage'. Connor is also honest with himself about the fact that he fears a personal confrontation with the killer.

There's a thrilling demonstration sword kata performed with real weapons and a tie in to the Kunaicho, a security agency for the Japanese Imperial House. After a terrifying duel with bokken, jo and katana, master Yamashita chooses his primary disciple and our hero ambles off into the sunset of a 'season still flush with possibility.' I hope this ending means that we will see more of the Burkes and Yamashita in additional episodes of what could be a great new series.

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