The title of Daniel Linden's new book, The Aikido Katana, evokes a particular kind of action story. After all, "Aikido" is a martial art and "katana" is a Samurai sword, so the combination of words stir up—at least for me—reminiscences of Saturday mornings watching poorly dubbed karate and kung fu movies. And, given the book's focus on characters that are either martial arts warriors or mysterious ex-military/government agent types, I was expecting—and hoping for—fists flying, bodies being tossed about and maybe some pitched fire battles.
And there is some action in The Aikido Katana, but not at first. The story opens at a conference in Washington, D.C., where we meet the protagonist, an aikido master named Sensei Parker who runs a training school in Florida. Though Linden sets the stage for Parker to square off against the Japanese mafia, the book takes some time to get there. It isn't until 80 pages in that Parker, in the parking garage of a swanky hotel, is nearly killed while attempting to prevent the theft of a sword meant for return to a Japanese dignitary. Parker's close friend is slain during the bloody melee and this encounter sets the stage for how the rest of the book plays out. Parker, who is also a private investigator on the side, gets caught up in the complex investigation that follows, where certain clues dead end, and bodies turn up to complicate the trail.
Katana is less action story and more of a straight-up mystery that leans toward police procedurals. It consists mostly of a series of scenes featuring men sitting around discussing details of the case over various meals and alcoholic beverages. It delves into the way in which different law enforcement agencies hand jurisdiction back and forth and it includes a couple of field trips to notable D.C. locations (the Smithsonian, for example). It also features cameos from real-world folks like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain.
Readers interested in the details of police procedure will find certain passages satisfying, but for the average reader, it can be dull. Lengthy exposition often comes in the form of dialogue, and only a few characters develop beyond just a name and a background paragraph. There is a large cast here, too, and in some cases it is hard to keep track of who is doing what. For example, one lead character, Robert "Opie" Taylor, gets a background flashback and there are hints about how much of a badass he is, but ultimately he does nothing to advance or participate in the story.
Female characters are so invisible as to essentially be nonexistent. We meet an ex-lover of Parker's who is around only long enough to be knocked unconscious in the fight that ends in the sword theft. Parker's current love interest pops in here and there to either deliver information or have sex with him. Beyond that, and a surly waitress or two, that's essentially it for the ladies.
As the first-person narrator, Parker tends to monologue a bit, and it has the effect of an author expressing his views via his character. In one scene, an Asian-American federal agent play-acts at being gay so that he will be underestimated, and then accuses Parker of being homophobic. Parker responds with, "Look, Paul, twenty years ago I would have told you how I really feel, but today you can't speak freely anymore. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in old Russia where you can be outed by a KGB agent for merely disliking the Premier. I know what I feel, but can no longer express myself because minority groups have usurped my civil right to freedom of speech. If that's a problem this interview is over."
Linden, who like his character is an aikido expert and teacher, divides his time between Florida and Maine, and has a background assisting law enforcement. The ninth book in a series, Katana stands fairly well on its own, though references to previous books—particularly one set in France where Parker recovers a stolen Japanese painting—are confusing.
I did enjoy several things about The Aikido Katana. I liked all the posturing and bickering among members of the aikido community at the conference in D.C. as they jockeyed for status, if only because I enjoy seeing the childishness of white tough guys on full display. I also liked the quartet of septuagenarian ex-federal agents Parker works with when he arrives in Missoula because of the barbs and good-natured jabs they take at each other. I enjoyed reading scenes set in Bayern Brewing and the Oxford. Most important, Linden knows how to tell a story and knows his subjects inside and out. Those advantages carry the book, despite the weaknesses in character development. For an audience who prefers their heroes tear-free and sweating testosterone, Sensei Parker should give them what they're looking for.