Friday, June 1, 2012

Review of Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland

I’ve read two of Laura Joh Rowland’s novels featuring samurai/investigator Sano Ichiro in late seventeenth century Japan, enjoying them both, so I figured it’s time to start the series from the beginning.

Her first novel, Shinju, opens with the bodies of a young, wealthy girl and a lowly artist, twice her age, bound together and floating in the river. It’s assumed they committed a ritual suicide, shinju, what lovers do when they are forbidden by family and culture to marry. The couple feels they will be together forever in the Buddhist afterlife.

Sano is a newly appointed yoriki, a sort of policeman for the village outside of Edo Castle, but he has received the post through an intervention by his patron, and not through the usual channels like family tradition. Therefore, he is ostracized and oppressed by his fellow yoriki. Being the low man on the totem pole, he is given the job of ‘solving’ the double suicide quietly and quickly by his superior, Magistrate Ogyu.

Sano isn’t satisfied the couple killed themselves so against his master’s direct orders, he begins to investigate the deaths. Almost immediately, he finds proof the crime was murder. His own sense of honor and finding the truth spurs him on disobeying repeated orders and threats from the magistrate.

Anyone else probably would’ve given up after the number of setbacks Sano encounters. For much of the book, he runs up against brick walls in his inquiry and receives more threats and risks dishonor. The story bogs down while Sano repeatedly finds himself at a dead end. Even after he’s dismissed in disgrace Sano continues his investigation, only then does he make progress. He discovers a plot to assassinate the shogun.

Rowland’s descriptions of seventeenth century Japan are incredibly detailed. The architecture and lay-out of Edo castle, the jail, the houses of the wealthy and pour, and the township are described down to the color of the walls and the smalls. She depicts aspects of the Japanese culture, clothing, hairstyles, society and holiday traditions with meticulous details. One could probably become an expert on Japan in the sixteen-eighties just by reading a few of her books.

Her eye for detail becomes a plus when she pens sword fights. Then the action rises to a fever-pitch and the reader turns the pages as fast as Sano blocks, parries and thrusts, defending himself from his sword –wielding opponents. The action is perfect.

At 437 pages, Shinju is much longer than most medieval mysteries, but the length doesn’t diminish the enjoyability. The story flies by.

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