Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

March book recommendation: '49 Buddhas'


March 11, 2020

The Left Hand Valley Courier and Inkberry Books are partnering for another book review. I love being part of this partnership because the folks at Inkberry suggest stories I never would have picked out for myself. This week, I read Jim Ringel's "49 Buddhas" and while I did enjoy it overall, I have to say, I'm a little undecided on where I stand with it.

Let me start off by saying that I really don't know a lot about Buddhism, so I loved that the beginning of each chapter started with a "lesson." I thought it gave good context to the book, and there were definitely times where I saw the relationship between the lesson and the chapter's events. I also appreciated the fact that Ringel included a glossary in the back of the book. It was a great reference for the various people and objects discussed throughout the story.

The story follows the Lama Rinzen, a monk who has been reborn as a detective working on Colfax Avenue in Denver. He's been tasked by local police to solve the murder of a well-known local insurance man. However, he's charged himself to find the mysterious dorje, an ancient, ritual object that is said to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment.

Because of Rinzen's dual mission, Ringel defines the book as "a murder mystery wrapped inside a Buddhist mystery." He said, "I'm trying to let the (mystery) genre expose the reader to other ideas and to question ideas. It isn't necessarily to get to the question of 'who did it?' but to get to the idea of self-revelation."

Balancing these two missions isn't easy for Rinzen, and considering it's his first life in the West as a detective, his lack of experience makes it that much more difficult. It was fascinating how Ringel proposed that when rebirth happens, you don't just forget your old lives, that you do remember parts of them and take them into the next one. While it makes sense to me that you might have glimmers of recognition of your past life, I was surprised by the extent to which Rinzen was shaped by his past lives.

On his quest to solve the murder and find the missing dorje, Rinzen meets a variety of characters along the way. For me, the most confusing were the "Spurtz gang," who were basically a boujie biker group. I didn't really know why they were given so much importance in the story. Story needs antagonists, but they seemed to be more of a nuisance than anything else.

When I asked Ringel about it, he said, "I just wanted them to be a menacing force. I was doing a little take on 1950s biker gangs. I just thought, that's kind of uniquely funny to Colorado I think, (to see groups of bicyclists all over) and I wanted to work that in." His explanation definitely validated my initial understanding of them, and it also gave me a better appreciation of them.

I also think there could have been better character development. While I definitely liked Rinzen and his partner-in-crime Abril, I felt like there were still a few questions around them. At least with Rinzen, we were given some context with various reflections on his past lives or his purpose, but I felt like he was still lacking just a little bit. Then again, maybe it's that emptiness Buddha was talking about and Rinzen was questioning.

Overall, I really enjoyed the way the novel was written. Near the end, Ringel switched from standard prose narrative to more of a script-dialogue, which I thought was a unique style choice that I enjoyed. I think that scene almost gave the most insight into Rinzen.

I also thought the descriptions were fabulous. They were so detailed, which is something I always appreciate. I loved how real the characters and locations felt. Growing up just outside of Denver, it was cool to see all those local references.

I found myself marking a ton of quotes that stuck out to me, so I'm taking that as a good sign too! For me, as much as I love detail and character-driven stories, I also really appreciate when a book has memorable quotes. Even though the story was a little confusing because of the multiple and overlapping storylines and the characters not quite as developed as I'd hoped, the overall book was really well done.

This is a story that is slightly more plot-driven than character driven, and the characters are definitely crucial to the story. So unless that's a deal breaker for you, I recommend this novel for almost any reader who enjoys fiction, mystery and challenging yourself with your books.

Happy reading.


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