When Alex, a New York City Detective, plans a trip to visit her Zen Master Setsu Roshi at his monastery retreat, she is looking forward to taking a break from her busy city life and the tough cases that she has to handle. Using special sensory skills that she has developed from her years of Zen training to help solve hard cases has its pluses, but at times it also can be somewhat draining. Going to the monastery gives Alex a chance to distance herself from the stress of her job and to get mentally refreshed. Little does she know that she is about to be involved with one of the biggest cases of her life because it involves her friends at her retreat.
Shortly after Alex arrives at the monastery, people start disappearing and bodies start appearing. There are three murders and one mutilated cat. Each situation seems to be connected with someone who has knowledge of Zen koans, who is also leaving a specific message. This leads Alex to suspect some of the people whom she is closest to, even her Zen Master Roshi. Alex has heard rumors about Roshi having a colorful past, and this causes her to contemplate how true of a master he really is. Because the monastery also houses people with criminal backgrounds, Alex doesn’t limit her suspicions to him. When law enforcement agencies get involved Alex is allowed to assist with doing some investigative work. Her knowledge of the people and their special ways helps give some insight to the outsiders.
The further Alex goes into the investigation, the more unsavory history she uncovers, including information about people who were formerly or are currently involved with her Zen master. She also learns that Roshi is being blackmailed. Striving to solve this case and help keep both herself and those around her safe while still enjoying some retreat time is very taxing and consuming, but Alex is compelled to help. As she gets closer to finding the truth, she also gains some greater insight into herself.
I really enjoyed reading One Hand Killing, which is the first novel in the Alex Sullivan Zen Mystery series. I look forward to finding out what Nancy O’Hara has in store for Alex in the future. I also found the premise to the story to be incredibly unique. I appreciated that the author used her own knowledge of Zen to add depth and credibility to the story. As I read, I found myself admiring this novel on two levels. The first was that it is a creatively written mystery with a unique plot and well-developed characters. The second aspect that I enjoyed is that the Zen focus isn’t just on the story, but it also offers many thought-provoking ideas with which I can apply to my own life. I also could really relate to the main character’s dilemma about having doubts about being able to trust her spiritual advisor. This is something very similar to a situation that I personally dealt with recently, and I was really interested in seeing how the author resolved it. I suspect that there will be many other readers that will relate to this. One Hand Killing is highly recommended reading.
(Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views)