Dreaming Spies

First published in A Hundred Gourds 5:3, June 2016. First written in October and November of 2015.
My thanks to Angela Terry for bringing this book to my attention.       +

Laurie R. King. Dreaming Spies. New York: Bantam, 2015. ISBN 978-0-345-53181-0, 5 x 8.25 inches, 368 pages, $16.00.

“The world rests on tiny things.” —Laurie R. King, in Dreaming Spies

I have in my bookcases a growing number of fiction books that feature haiku in a consistent or substantial way. These include such books as Hisaye Yamamoto’s short-story collection, Seventeen Syllables (although only the title story is about haiku), David Patneaude’s young-adult novel, Through Thin Walls (in which haiku serves as an important plot device), Dan Gemeinhart’s brand-new young-adult book, The Honest Truth, Haiku by Andres Vachess, False Memory by Dean Koontz, The Haiku Murder by Fran Pickering, and Snow by Maxence Fermine. Other related books include The Kobe Hotel by Saito Sanki, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, A Haiku for Hanae by James Melville, Starship and Haiku by Somtow Sucharitkul, and such middle-grade books as The Time Warp Trio: Sam Samurai by Jon Scieszka and Dragon of the Red Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne, the latter two of which are specifically about haiku and do not merely use haiku in an incidental way. These books are all by writers outside the established haiku community, and thus differ greatly in their understanding of haiku when compared with books such as the set of haiku novels by former Haiku Society of America president David Lanoue. This small but slowly growing genre of literary fiction can be celebrated for its promotion of haiku.

        Perhaps the best recent addition to this sort of “outsider” haiku novel is Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King. Her book is a mystery set chiefly in Japan and England that features Sherlock Holmes and his intrepid wife Mary Russell (who serves as the narrator). This book is the thirteenth in King’s bestselling detective fiction series, and to call it mere Sherlock Holmes fan fiction would be to do it a disservice. It delivers suspense, faithful period depiction, intelligent drama, and finely wrought characters, all in measured, fulsome, and thoroughly researched, historically accurate prose. The book is a terrific read.

        What sets Dreaming Spies apart, for haiku writers, is the extent to which haiku permeates the novel, and the informative Japanese cultural immersion the book offers, covering language, customs, aesthetics, and more. After a preamble in England, the book has three main parts, set onboard a ship travelling to the Orient, in Japan, and then back in England. Each of the book’s thirty-nine chapters begins with a haiku as a sort of epigraph. That device has been employed before, such as in Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors, but haiku also interweaves itself more directly into this book’s plot, set in 1924 and 1925, shortly after the Great Kantō earthquake that devastated Tokyo on September 1, 1923. After the preamble set in Oxford (that place of “dreaming spires,” which the book’s title plays upon), the book commences with Holmes and Russell aboard an ocean liner travelling from Bombay to Kobe, upon which they encounter an enigmatic Japanese woman who turns out to be a ninja spy, and a dapper British earl who turns out to be a blackmailer. Nor is it an accident that they are both on the same ship together. Holmes and Russell are drawn into their webs of intrigue as they seek to unravel and hopefully solve the case, as we expect, but also help to resolve a Japanese national crisis that reaches even to the emperor.

        Of further interest to haiku poets is the fact that the entire case revolves around a one-of-a-kind handmade book of Bashō poems, illustrated by Hokusai: “A folding book of illustrated poems, some eight inches tall and three and a half wide, with a slip-case to hold it. When stretched out, it forms a panorama of the . . . Kisokaido [road]” (155). This road, of course, was the subject of Bashō’s haiku diary, A Travel-Worn Rucksack—a copy of which the Japanese ninja spy just happens to give to Mary Russell. The crown prince of Japan is being blackmailed for the return of the handmade book, not just because it contains Bashō’s haiku, but because of a secret document hidden in its binding—an object that originally belonged, so we are told, to Bashō himself. It’s that hidden document that the Imperial household is really after.

         On the three-week boat trip, the Japanese woman, Haruki Sato, conducts daily language and cultural lessons to amuse those on board. Any haiku poet would enjoy these lessons for their provision of information about Japanese customs and aesthetics. Even haiku is introduced and explained, the only slip-up being a reference to “renko” (81) as the form of linked verse that gave rise to haiku—of course, she should have said “renga” or “renku.” Bashō’s haiku are also quoted several times, and he too is revealed as being a ninja—a not implausible speculation, since the poet hailed from Iga Ueno, which is well known for its ninja heritage and even today sports a ninja museum just steps from the Bashō museum in Ueno Park.

        Dreaming Spies describes haiku as “deceptively simple” (10), adding that they are “charming and thought-provoking, although the intensity of their imagery perhaps failed to translate into English” (81). We are also advised that “the classic 5/7/5 syllable arrangement of haiku did not really mean syllables” (81) and that “The haiku captures a fleeting moment. Of great beauty, or heartbreak. A moment that . . . encapsulates the essence of a season. Such as the fragrance of blossoming cherries, or the sound of snow, or the feel of hot summer wind blowing the bamboo” (81). Later, haiku are described again as “odd, brief poems” that capture “a fleeting moment of . . . heartbreaking beauty” (134).

         The preceding descriptions are accurate and informed, although basic. Despite that, what needs to be overlooked, as accomplished haiku poets will suspect, is the uninformed quality of all the book’s many dozens of haiku. Aside from the handful of Bashō poems that are quoted, most are by the author, although not limited to the thirty-nine epigraph poems. Occasionally, one rises slightly above the others in quality, even exhibiting a two-part structure (223):

                Oxford in the spring:

                Tints of pale pink and yellow

                But rarely scarlet.

But most poems are a far cry from this. As examples of the majority of the poems, here are the poems that serve as epigraphs for the first and last chapters (3, 329):

                Old grey stone travels

                Moss-covered, cradled in straw,

                Blinks at English spring.

                Temple of the Book:

                A Fool’s errands all around:

                Gallows lie below.

Beyond this, haiku is given great respect and we can give the author credit for trying. Here, though, the hand of a beginner is readily apparent. Although the first of the preceding two poems proffers strong images, it is denuded by the personification of spring, the poem’s general wordiness, and the tiresome insistence on syllable-counting that produces a wordy and heavy-handed brick of a poem. Nor does the poem stand alone, since it helps to know that it’s about a large old stone emblazoned with a chrysanthemum that is given as a gift to Holmes and Russell by the Japanese crown prince. In the second poem, also wordy, little of the poem resembles anything expected of literary haiku. The verse has three parts instead of a maximum of two, lacks any seasonal awareness, and presents an uncomfortable amount of explanation rather than momentary experience. This disconnect between theory and practice is common in mainstream novels that involve haiku. Yet what the poems do well in this book is to foreshadow the events of each chapter, as the gallows suggests of the antagonist’s likely fate. Indeed, the purpose of the poems at the start of each chapter is exactly what an epigraph should do—to hint at or summarize the chapter to come, or to impart its mood. They are something offered at right-angles to the chapters that follow, giving them an added dimension. Thus the poems serve the novel rather than serving haiku as a genre of literature. Along the way, they emphasize the book’s Japanese focus and give each step of the novel a haiku sensibility that may well attract readers into writing some haiku of their own.

         My purpose here is not to review the book so much as the role of haiku in it. Nevertheless, I found each of the characters well-rounded and engaging, with more focus on Mary Russell as the narrator than on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes comes across differently than in the Conan Doyle books and the film adaptations—that is, as less intense, idiosyncratic, and surreptitiously domineering. His marriage to Mary Russell seems to have mellowed him. At several turns, the plot will surprise most readers, such as when the protagonists discover one of their shipmates to be a ninja, and further when she turns out to be a friend rather than a foe, and in fact knew they were onboard despite their travelling under false names. Particularly engaging are the descriptions of aristocratic shipboard life, and haiku poets who attended the 2013 Haiku North America conference aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California will be delighted to learn in the acknowledgments that the book’s California-based author consulted “Commodore Everette Hoard of the Queen Mary . . . who answered many odd questions about cruise liners” (333). One may even speculate wildly if the conference’s presence aboard the Queen Mary might have sparked the novel in the first place, or at least might have been part of Commodore Hoard’s consciousness in responding to Laurie King. Unlikely, but one never knows! Also engaging are the cultural lessons about Japan aboard the ship, and perhaps even haiku sensibilities, which are made manifest when the lead characters reach Kobe and then travel in disguise as henro, or Buddhist pilgrims, along the Kisokaido road. This unlikely plot choice feels like a bit too much of a stretch, but readers can make the most of what the protagonists learn about Japan along the way. When they visit a Japanese garden, its beauty is described in brief detail and the narrator says “I felt as if my eyes had just been born” (115). Other intimacies with the Japanese countryside and its people give them both a deep love of the culture. When the narrative shifts to Tokyo, it culminates in a tumultuous and eventful high-society party with the crown prince of Japan, who will later become Emperor Hirohito. The party transpires at Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Imperial Hotel (which I’ve had the privilege of visiting after it was mostly demolished in 1968 and the preserved entrance hall was relocated to the Meiji-mura outdoor museum in Inuyama, Japan, near where my wife’s parents live). At the hotel, and at tragic cost, the prized book of Bashō poems is recovered and an act of blackmail is thwarted—or so we are led to believe. The third part of the book, its most Holmsian part, shifts back to England, which is far from a denouement but whips out a deeper plot twist. That twist (spoiler alert here) is the fact that the recovered book is a forgery and lacks the hidden document. The entire game is still afoot. More twists await the reader in this thoroughly engaging period piece. Those who enjoy haiku poetry would be fortunate if more books were to embrace haiku in their plots the way Laurie R. King has done in Dreaming Spies.