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THE MANTIS
by Kotaro Isaka and Sam Malissa, trans.
Overlook, November 2023
256 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 1419769472


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kotaro Isaka's third novel of a trilogy (THREE ASSASSINS, translated 2022, and BULLET TRAIN, translated 2021) follows The Mantis, a workaday assassin of considerable skill. The twist is, he is getting old and wanting to retire to spend more time with his family. His need to do so humanizes him and his work. His scenes of longing are deeply human and suffused with bittersweet beauty. They contrast to the comic-book style fight scenes that punctuate an assassin's life.

Dramatis personae: Miyaki Kabuto, an expert, but ageing assassin; the assassin's wife, whom he comically and hopelessly tries to please, but can't; his son Katsumi, upon whom he dotes, and who does not know anything of his father's profession; Katsumi's wife, and his little son, Daiki; Nanomura, Miyaki Kabuto's best friend, who is also an expert assassin; and his son, who operates a dry cleaning business; the doctor, who runs an assassination business fronted by his clinic and its patients.

Kotero Isaka's THE MANTIS falls into two parts which chronicle the past and the present. The novel begins in the past, but we are in the mind of The Mantis (Miyaki Kabuto) as he plans and carries out his assignments. Kotero Isaka's novel is not a blood-and-guts novel, as so many American novels about murder are. Instead of focusing on body count, bullet wounds, ammo, and collateral damage, the episodes of murder follow the experiences of the assassin-as-working-stiff. He checks his watch, he worries about his wife, with whom he has had yet another "discussion," he misses his son, and he is counting the days until he can retire.

Assassination scenes take on the colors, for me, of classic comic book pages. Assassins are trained in the martial arts, they engage up close with their victims: BIFF!! BASH!! We are aware of their lightning-fast reaction time, their deep knowledge of the physics of the body. These scenes seem to rise from the pages of the book and enter the world of Batman and The Incredible Hulk. After the assassinations, the action seems to lean back down, tamely into the book's printed pages.

The assassin tries to impress upon his boss his need to retire. His boss, using a doctor's office and profession as his front, discusses more and more delicate "operations" and more "prescriptions" that are still required. For the sake of this review, let us say that The Mantis's need to retire goes unmet, and that, for some reason, he dies a suicide.

The rest of the book takes place in the present of the Mantis's son's life. He is a successful, loving, family man who reminisces about his father. One day, he decides to find out what happened, and this leads him down stranger and stranger alleyways of the past. He finds he never knew his father after all.

The details of the son's search will have to wait, dear reader, until you take the time to pick up a copy of this novel and read it.

Cathy Downs, Prof. Emerita at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, keeps a garden, feeds the cats, designs quilts, and enjoys good books of the mysterious sort.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, December 2023

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