Most people today link the name James Clavell to books like Shōgun, one of his six "Asian Saga" novels. But before that, he helped co-write the classic war film The Great Escape, as well as write and direct the Sidney Poitier classroom drama To Sir, With Love.
Clavell's first novel, 1962's King Rat, was a fictionalized version of his own time in the Changi prison camp during World War II. He followed it in 1966 with Tai-Pan, a story of finance, espionage and intrigue set in mid 19th-century Hong Kong. Both were well-received, but in 1975 Shōgun blew through Clavell's previous sales records as well as turned him into a kind of "brand name" author. He helped produce the 1980 miniseries based on his book, which ranks as the second-most watched miniseries in television, grabbing 120 million viewers over its nine hours and taking home three Emmy awards.
The book itself probably represents Clavell's high-water mark as a novelist. King Rat and Tai-Pan lack its depth of story, and the subsequent books Noble House, Whirlwind and Gai-Jin lack its focused narrative. Clavell was probably way too much of a professional to fall victim to the kind of bestseller bloat that weighs down modern bookshelves, but his last three books show a need for trimming that Shōgun doesn't.
Loosely based on the life of British sea captain William Adams and the beginning of what's called Togukawa Shōgunate in Japan, Shōgun tells the story of John Blackthorne, an English pilot sailing with a Dutch trading fleet around 1600. Blackthorne and his shipmates aboard Erasmus are shipwrecked in Japan, a country mostly closed to foreigners. The only European influence has been through Portuguese trade, accompanied by Portuguese priests from the Roman Catholic Church. Blackthorne, as an Englishman and a Protestant, finds little common cause with his fellow Europeans and also finds himself involved in the efforts of Lord Toronaga Yoshi to calm unrest and protect his own family and holdings during troubled times. Toronaga is also based on an historical character, the feudal lord Togukawa Ieyasu whose victory in the Battle of Sekigahara established him as the Shōgun, or supreme military dictator.
Clavell spends much of the novel weaving Blackthorne's story into his learning about Japan and Japanese culture, such as the warrior code bushido and the way of the samurai. He meets and falls in love with the Lady Toda Mariko, though her marriage to another means the affair could end in both of their deaths. A parallel story follows Toronaga's political games and intrigue in thwarting his enemies, General Ishido and the Lady Ochiba, and his use of Blackthorne in these activities.
Shōgun rarely, if ever, clogs its story with exposition even while Clavell explains Japanese culture to the reader through Blackthorne's own education. The Englishman's encounters with laws, customs and philosophy different from his own almost make Shōgun read like a science-fiction novel, which could have been one reason the sci-fi-preferring me appreciated it when I first read it in the early '80s. It may not be high literature, but it definitely represents an older tradition of the so-called "airport novel," in which the idea of fast-paced adventure and intrigue didn't have to mean cardboard-cutout characters, clunky writing and sloppy storytelling.