Book review: Sensei–A Thriller

 Zen martial arts thriller blends murder, mysticism

sensei-thriller-zen-novelRating: 4  out of 5 stars

The first in a series of Zen martial arts thrillers, “Sensei” by John Donohue blends Zen principles and the sweat and intensity of a Japanese dojo with a wryly smart police procedural in this top-notch Zen thriller.

Story: In every case, the modus operandi is the same, and the only clue available is a cryptic message scrawled on the wall bearing the signature “Ronin” – the Japanese name for a masterless samurai.  Connor Burke, a part-time college teacher with a passion for the martial arts, is called in to help out with the investigation by his brother, an NYPD detective. With the help of his teacher, the master warrior Yamashita Sensei, Burke begins to follow the trail of clues that stretches across time and place, ultimately confronting his own fears, his sense of honor, and the ruthless killer who calls himself “Ronin”. (from

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Donohue is a kendo (Japanese sword) master, but this novel is much more than a murder mystery with great fight sequences. Burke applies Zen principles to training, to life, to combat, to art. In fact, there is no way to separate them; Sensei Yamashita instructs his students on how to “destroy with elegance.”

The true spirit of karate, Sensei Yamashita says, is not in perfecting fighting technique but in the development of the spirit. He emphasizes the importance of being fully present, in practice and in life. Martial arts is another way to train to diminish the ego, one of the goals of Zen Buddhism. Kendo training is just another tool in pursuit of enlightenment.

My take: I loved the spare, elegant prose that reflects the spiritual simplicity of the story. Sensei is much like the martial artists it depicts; violent and frenetic on the surface, yet calm and centered within. Donohue’s debut novel is not quite as lyrical as Deshi, the second novel in the series, but it’s still a gripping thriller with amazing details and compelling characterization.

Donohue really knows his subject. The novel is full of interesting little asides that explain the nature of the Japanese, especially  Zen and martial arts. He has a way of describing physical movements, of writing a combat scene, that reveals the grace, precision, and spirituality that hold together the brute force and aggression. You don’t just read about a battle–you experience it. And you understand why one man or woman prevails and another falters, both from a technical and a spiritual perspective. Sensei is a stellar example of a novel that shows rather than tells its spiritual/metaphysical theme. I look forward to reading the entire series.

Sensei, by John Donohue
Thomas Dunne Books, 2003
Paperback, 258 pages
Buy at Amazon


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