Book Review: Shibumi by Trevanian

July 9, 2024


Shibumi by Trevanian is a classic spy novel, following an assassin who is ethnically white, but raised in Japan. Trevanian is the num de plume of Rodney William Whitaker, a film scholar and writer.

  • 480 pages
  • Publisher ‏ : Crown
  • Language ‏ : English
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : 1400098033

Book Review: Shibumi by Trevanian
My rating for Shibumi5

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This book got a boost in 2014 when it was shown in John Wick, and the creators said it was an influence. I had heard of Shibumi by Trevanian before the movie, and finally got around to reading it.

Even though this book is a satire, it’s quite profound. Sometimes I went back and re-read some parts, other times I marked them to show family and friends. Neither of those things is usual for me, especially since in the decades since the books has been written, many of the observations are still relevant.

The author views the world through the eyes of Nicholas Hel and Japanese philosophy. I have to admit some of it was a challenge to read, yet very interesting. There are also many locations in the book, mainly in Japan, Spain, and Washington DC. There’s a dual narrative between Hel and a Mother Company executive / CIA operative which eventually link up.

The characters are well drawn, from master spy to concubine. Each one has distinct traits, running the gamut from engaging to appalling.

The book’s title, Shibumi, refers to simplicity with subtle details, and can be applied to a way of life, or just cooking, gardening, etc. it was an interesting concept which I found fascinating and is explained very well in the novel.

And yes, Nicholas Hel does kill people with a [fookin’] pencil. But that’s not nearly as interesting as the discipline of “naked/kill”, being able to use ordinary items as instruments of death.
Sounds familiar?


The most wanted man in the world, Nicholai Hel, is living a life of simplicity in Basque Country. The elder assassin doesn’t lack money but believes in a comfortable, yet isolated life of little luxury. Hel, the son of a Russian mother and a German father, is a genius, a polyglot, and an expert Go player.

One day, a beautiful, young, Israeli girl appears on Hel’s doorstep, looking for revenge on Black September Terrorists. The problem is that she is bringing with her Hel’s most dangerous enemy, a government-controlling conglomerate known as the Mother Company.

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More Books by Trevanian*

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I bought this book
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account, the money is usually spent on books

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