Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
In Spirit of the Fox by Matthew O'Connell, a brief Prologue shows a family is being driving out of their remote, rural Japanese village in 1945. The unnamed point-of-view character is a young girl who has a younger brother. She has no idea where they are going, but any place would be better than where she's been.
Jump to present-day Tokyo. Meiko Wright has just finished her undergraduate degree in psychology at UC Santa Barbara, is taking a year off before deciding what she wants to study in graduate school, and has come to Japan with her father David to spend a year teaching English. David is a professor of anthropology with a special interest in folklore, who will be teaching in a Japanese university for a year. Meiko's mother, Chieko, is Japanese and a successful Tokyo psychologist. Chieko divorced David nine years earlier and returned to Japan, abandoning Meiko, at least in Meiko's eyes.
The story really gets going when Meiko goes to Kyoto for a weekend on her own. She visits the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a real place famous for its tunnel of red torii gates. Inari is the god of rice, fertility, sake, tea, and prosperity. The god's messenger or avatar is the fox and every one of the more than three thousand Inari shrines in Japan has one or more statues of a fox. The Fushimi Inari Shrine parent shrine of all Japanese Inari shrines.
Walking alone in the woods near the shrine, Meiko sees a fox, falls, and hits her head. When she wakes up, she has no memory of who or where she is (although she can still speak Japanese and English). She has no purse, no cell phone, no wallet, nothing to identify her. A priest from the shrine assists her, gives her his card, a prepaid cell phone, ¥50,000 so that she can eat and find a place to stay, a good luck charm to wear, and a special tea blend she should drink regularly to calm herself. The priest gives her a name, Hana, and sends her off to a nearby soba restaurant for a meal.
In short order, Hana, who radiates pure sexual desirability and erotic opportunity, has seduced the married restaurant owner and persuaded him to buy her sexy lingerie; expensive, brand-name clothing; and put her up in a hotel.
Back in Tokyo, David grows concerned when Meiko does not return to their apartment and does not answer her cell phone. Because he is not fluent in Japanese, he has to join forces with his ex-wife, who is after all a native. They contact the Kyoto police, who are not particularly concerned about a young foreign woman who may be shacking up with an attractive man and is not answering her phone.
The police however are interested in a soba restaurant owner who kills himself by jumping off a building. A handwritten note in his pocket says, " . . .My life is ruined. If I had never met you, Hana, would my life be better? . . . Now that I can't be with you, what's the point of living? . . ." We readers know that Meiko/Hana has moved on to another target. Could it be that Meiko has been taken over by a fox spirit? Would that explain the fox tattoo on the dead man's ankle? What has happened to Meiko? She herself does not know.
David, the anthropologist, wants to keep an open mind about the possibility of spirit possession. Her mother, the psychologist, has no sympathy for spirits, shamans, or fox possession. Chieko's mother, Aiko, has her own ideas. And the Kyoto detectives are on the trail of a seductive young woman who is leaving a trail of death and destruction and Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel boxes behind her.
Spirit of the Fox is an interesting story that incorporates Japanese folklore and culture in a mystery for which I was willing to suspend my instinctive disbelief. I do have some quibbles. O'Connell devotes an entire chapter to a class David gives at the international division of Waseda University in Tokyo. While the material is interesting for itself, it has little relevance to the main thrust of the book and slows things down.
On the other hand, a Shinto priest says, "People have a need to believe in something beyond themselves. I would say that it is fundamental to our being. I believe this small omamori [good-luck charm, amulet] is more than an attractive piece of silk and wood. I believe that it helps protect me and guide me along a purer path. Can I prove that? Is there scientific evidence to confirm it? No, of course not. But does that make it any less powerful to me? Again, the answer is no." Here the priest's words do help to move the story along.
By putting every chapter into the point of view of the central character—David, Chieko, Aiko, Meiko, Hana, Detective Nomura—the action for the most part does move along briskly. I found Spirit of the Fox a diverting mystery that held my interest.