09/27/2011 06:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2011

Kage -- A Thriller

John Donohue, a devotee of the Japanese martial arts, has a knack for rendering those arts -- and the culture that underpins them -- in a gritty way that makes the arts palpable to a Western audience while meshing with the demands of a modern American crime novel. In his latest novel, Kage, this knack has matured both in texture and plot line. The book reads more like a mainstream thriller than Donohue's three previous offerings, but in sharp contrast to the legions of crime writers who use the arts to gratuitously throw in both martial references and action scenes, Donohue knows what he's talking about.

Such a faithful rendering of action and the arts is welcome, as East Asian culture and its martial arts are experiencing a renaissance in the West these days. As they did in the 1960s -- although for entirely different reasons -- economic and social forces are causing a certain subset of the new generation to question the spiritually bankrupt moral frenzy they have inherited, and to look with interest at a life path that includes loyalty, discipline, devotion, honor, hard work, and tough love.

Although superficially less busy than mainstream international thrillers that render a different airport, a different café, and a different intelligence agency in every other paragraph, Kage is nonetheless a dense tale of manipulation, conspiracy and revenge. There are plenty of subplots -- human trafficking, drugs, weapons and assassination -- as well as an interesting cast of secondary characters, including a wily government agent who changes like a chameleon from scene to scene, a bitchy hotel manager who is up to more than she lets on, and a retired cop interested in more than just his golf game.

The novel's point of view can also change disconcertingly, though not in a fashion uncommon in the genre. Sometimes we see action through the eyes and voice of an omniscient narrator hovering over the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but most of the time we see action, and feel introspection, through the heart and mind of Conner Burke, the book's dark, moody, more-than-slightly fractured hero. Ironically, it is the anchor of Burke's voice that allows the novel to succeed. This is a man caught between the tradition of another place and time and the gritty realities of his own daily life, a man who is wont to bring a sword to a gunfight and somehow manage to prevail, though at significant cost.

Burke is aware of the fact that he's an anachronism, as much of a social outsider as any noir gumshoe, yet by dint of his relationship with his sensei, he is very much a participant in the here and now. In fact, while there are good martial action scenes -- professional assassins attacking Burke and his ladylove in a New York apartment, a complex ambush in the desert, and more -- it is that relationship that stays with the reader long after the final page is turned.

Most interactions between martial arts teachers and their students bear the marks of ego, urges, strivings, ambitions, and needs. Burke's dance with Yamashita no exception. Donohue's previous books also render this relationship, but in Kage what was a portrait of obedience and supplication has become more of a nuanced dance between partners, as the years take their toll on the Japanese teacher and his student comes into majority, both in terms of age and skill:

"Is that how you see it," I asked, my eyes rising to look at him, "some battle between good and evil, peace and violence?

"He grimaced. 'You are losing your way in this. It is not a thing where you can choose either peace or violence." He placed his hands on the floor in front of him and pivoted to face me. He spoke slowly, distinctly, concerned to drive home the import of what he was revealing.

'The sword that gives life, Burke, is also the sword that takes life. They are one and the same. Accept it. Accept yourself.'"

On the surface, Kage is an action-packed page-turner with a hint of alienated darkness salted in. Below that, however, the book is a meditation on the war waged within each of us between our violent instincts and our forbearance.

As Burke puts it:

"In the martial arts, we meditate and talk about the nature of training as a Do, a path, to enlightenment. But there are lots of ways to accomplish this end that don't involve pounding on people the way we do. Ultimately, no matter how hard we deny it, there's part of us that likes that aspect of the bugei. The heat. The contact. The fury, trapped and funneled into something truly dangerous... The easily bruised should not apply."

Fans of action fiction, Japanese philosophy, and martial arts, on the other hand, would do well to pick up a copy of this book, and through the safety and insights within its pages, be both challenged and entertained.