There is no more stimulating activity than that of the mind;
and there is no more exciting adventure
than that of the intellect.
— S. S. Van Dine (1927).
By Ron Fritze from Athens, Alabama
Posted January 23, 2009
If you like mysteries and you like history but you are also looking for something that is out of the ordinary, I have a suggestion for you — Laura Joh Rowland. It has been over a year since I wrote my first “Mysteries Set in History” essay. When I wrote it, I thought that I would be writing another fairly soon as there are a goodly number of authors that I think are worth sharing. Events, however, intervened to delay a new essay on that topic for over a year. Fortunately I finally got some time to read Rowland’s latest novel. She remains one of my favorite authors.
The Way of the Warrior.
Laura Joh Rowland has set her mysteries in the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Genroku era from 1688-1704. Her protagonist is Sano Ichiro, who at the beginning of the series is a
young samurai and the son of the proprietor of a sword-fighting school. Sano is a highly principled young man who has thoroughly incorporated the values of Bushido, the way of the warrior, into his life-style and psyche.
Trying to make his
way in the world, Sano obtains a job as a policeman. Unfortunately for Sano, not everyone shares his reverence and obedience to the code of honor of the samurai. Starting as a lowly junior policeman, Sano encounters selfishness, greed, laziness, dishonesty, corruption, and even treason at the highest level.
Through it all Sano perseveres. When the honest and honorable hero saves the life of the reigning Shogun, military dictator Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709, r. 1680-1709), he is rewarded with a rapid promotion. But his swift rise in the hierarchy of the police also gains Sano many enemies.
First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage.
His talent, integrity, and tenacity continue to stand Sano in good stead as he manages to solve more and more important cases. Along the way he meets and falls in love with Reiko Ueda, the daughter of a
nobleman. Because Reiko had no brothers, her father taught her many of the martial arts that were normally reserved for male children.
The couple are married, although in very un-Japanese fashion, with Reiko foregoing her domestic role by assisting Sano with his investigations. The hero’s wife proves to be highly intelligent, a skilled fighter, and very intrepid. She also provides him with a son, Masahiro, and a daughter, Akiko.
As promotions continue to come to him, Sano develops a following of loyal retainers. Chief among them is the intensely loyal and resolute warrior, Hirata.
Although most of the Sano Ichiro novels are set in the great metropolis of Edo or Tokyo, they also venture out into the country along the great Tokaido Road. In The Snow Empress, the settings include the far north and the island of Hokkaido, where Sano encounters the Ainu people. Plots involve Dutch visitors, murderous Buddhist sects, and megalomaniac warlords as well as continuing intrigues around the Shogun Tsunayoshi.
The Military Dictator Brings Unity.
Japan during the Tokugawa era was a closed country, with no foreigners allowed in and no Japanese allowed out. The only exception were the Dutch, who were allowed to trade in Japan, but only under the most restrictive conditions and under close supervision.
After a period of civil wars, Japan had finally been united and stabilized under the military dictatorship of the Tokugawa family, providing the political climate to allow it to grow into a populous and prosperous nation. Although the emperors of Japan were nominally the rulers of Japan, real power was in the hands of the Tokugawa. No external enemies threatened the nation. Any threats were internal with plots, conspiracies, and rebellions erupting periodically. It was an unpromising environment for maintaining the values of bushido.
Rowland does a wonderful job with historical detail in her novels. From palaces to hovels and temples to brothels, she makes late seventeenth-century Japan come to life for her readers.
A Gay Simpleton Whose Lover
Becomes Sano's Arch Enemy
Historical personages also appear in her novels. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi really did rule Japan. He is accurately portrayed as an unabashed homosexual and a bit of an easily manipulated simpleton. This detail is not merely salacious. Samurai frequently practiced shudo, a form of homosexuality between an adult male and a teenage boy or a younger man. Tsunayoshi fell into this tradition, and his proclivities sometimes influenced court politics. One of his younger lovers was Yanigasawa Yoshiyasu, who rose high in the government of Tsunayoshi. Rowland’s novels portray Yanigasawa as an unprincipled but highly intelligent and sly plotter. He is one of Sano’s most formidable foes.
Besides the rich historical background, Rowland has
created some memorable characters. Sano and Reiko are very likeable people. Hirata and his wife Midori are also compelling characters. The villains are also fascinating — as all good villains should be — and although there are plenty of others, there is no better villain than the relentless Yanigasawa.
Together the bad guys — and I mean that in the Midwestern usage of a group of males and females — put Sano and Reiko through some harrowing adventures that try their souls and menace their bodies.
Each novel can stand on its own, but there is a series story arc revolving around Sano’s struggle with Yanigasawa.
A Flaw or Two
Two slight negatives mar the novels.
For one, Rowland has introduced the characters of Sano and Reiko’s children. Often, adding children to a series involving a couple can change their chemistry in an unfavorable way, particularly by adding too much domesticity to a relationship based on adventure. For me, the Thin Man movie series from the 1930s and 40s is a classic case in point. It remains to be seen if injecting kids into the mix will ruin the Sano Ichiro series, but so far Rowland is maintaining a good balance.
Another recent aspect of the series involves Hirata’s quest for enlightenment and enhanced fighting powers through meditation and mysticism, which involves too much of a supernatural element. The
supernatural also plays a heavy role in The Snow Empress. That is okay as long as the reader is willing to suspend belief.
The Snow Empress, number twelve in the series, takes place in the last months of 1699. That means that Sano’s career is rapidly approaching the famous episode of the Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin that occurred in 1702. One can only hope that Sano will have some involvement with the Forty-Seven Ronin, considered through the ages by many Japanese to be the finest examples of loyalty and perseverance in duty by samurai. It will also be interesting to see if she can find a way to get the nasty Yanigasawa involved.
A Series of 13
Thirteen fine novels are available with more likely to appear.
Check it out.
The Way of the Traitor, 1997
The Concubine’s Tattoo, 1998
The Samurai’s Wife, 2000
Black Lotus, 2001
The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, 2002
The Dragon King’s Palace, 2003
The Perfumed Sleeve, 2004
The Assassin’s Touch, 2005
Red Chrysanthemum, 2006
The Snow Empress, 2007
The Fire Kimono, 2008.
What we want in our detective fiction is not a semblance of real life . . .
but deep mystery and conflicting clues..
— E. M. Wrong (1926).
Click on the black panther to read Ron Fritze's previous essay,
"Disney, Aztecs, Longhorns, and Reds: Ay Chihuahua and GTT."