Shinjū - Laura Joh Rowland

Laura Joh Rowland
Harper Torch
ISBN: 0061009504 (Amazon link)

For some odd reason I just can't warm to most crime or mystery fiction unless it's set somewhere exotic. I particularly like ancient Rome, so most of my crime reading has been of the gumshoe-in-a-toga variety. Sadly, I've caught up with the hardback publication of most of these authors (Saylor, Davis etc), so I was delighted to stumble across a gumshoe in another of my favourite historical settings - 17th century Japan.

Shinjū is set under the fifth Tokugawa Shogun, in 1689. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the 'Dog Shogun', doesn't have a terrific historical reputation, and it'll be interesting to see if he becomes an important character in this series. Japanese society is in a transitional period, although a long one, during the Tokugawa Shogunates - without more-or-less constant civil war, the samurai classes are having to redefine themselves, and many are losing out to the increasingly influential (and despised) merchants. Stripped of military activity, many of the great families are falling into decadence and petty squabbles, increasingly moving away from strict adherence to their traditional codes of conduct. Put another way, there's plenty of gossip to place a story against.

Shinjū introduces Sano Ichirō, a newly installed yoriki (police chief) in Edo. Sano is the son of a samurai, but his father was forced to become ronin by a change in his lord's fortunes some years ago, and now runs a small ken-jutsu dojo. His health failing, he wishes to get Sano set up with a decent career and a respectable, upwardly-mobile marriage. Sano's installation as yoriki involves his father calling in a family debt from another family, and while appreciate of the efforts of his father and his patron, Sano isn't entirely happy with his new, hierarchically dominated career.

For one thing, being rather bookish and curious, he rather liked his old job of tutor and historian. For another, the other yoriki have inherited their positions through their families, and are jealous of the interloper. In particular, they really aren't happy when their new peer doesn't uphold the dignity of his office and gets his feet dirty talking to the doshin (beat cops) while investigating a fire. Sano appears to be under the mistaken belief that he somehow has to intervene in the doshin's day to day activities to ensure that the actual perpetrator of crime is brought to justice, not just the convenient one. This unusual view of his office brings Sano to the attention of Magistrate Ogyu, who isn't exactly the villain of the piece but is one of those political figures whose entire world is painted in shades of self-serving grey.

Ogyu politely reminds Sano of his obligations to his father and his patron, suggests that he doesn't rock the boat, and could he perhaps clear away the little matter of a shinjū, a double love suicide, to restore their faith in him. Shinjū were both common, having a dramatic place in the theatres of the time, and despised. A delicate little matter as it turns out, as the girl turns out to be the daughter of a very important family. Obviously while her peasant lover and his family should be exposed to the full shame of his crime, the girl and her own family mustn't be implicated.

Only one problem - Sano isn't convinced it's a suicide at all. In particular, he very much suspects it to be murder, but due to the Confucian aversion to death, he can't explain his methods. His desire to uncover the truth sets him against his duty to his patron, and therefore his father, and his superior, Ogyu. Needless to say, the Plot Thickens from there, and enjoyably so.

I really enjoyed Shinjū; it's a fast paced murder mystery relying more on cultural mores to hide motivations and evidence than a convoluted plot. Stripped of the colour of the back-streets of Edo, however, it's fairly conventional western in structure, and it wouldn't be too hard to rewrite Shinjū in, say, 1939's Chicago. I'd have preferred the author to immerse us more completely in Sano's Edo; she does a good job with characters, but is a little more hesitant about introducing historical Japan, relying a little too much on westernising elements. In particular, when we first meet Sano he refers in passing to his daisho as a "saber" and "dirk", which is not only jarringly wrong to my ear, but underplays their public significance. Less superficially, while Sano wrestles with duty vs desire, a classic Japanese plot, he always seems to have too modern an outlook for my taste. He's individualistic, choosing his own way over shaming his family, and seems already to be outside the rigid strictures of his society, looking in with us the reader. Certainly some of this is driven by plot needs, but his iconoclastic view of caste sits a bit oddly alongside his portrayal as a traditionalist.

Still, I'm nit-picking - Sano's world is colourful and studded with well-researched detail, the plot satisfying, and the characters sympathetic. The author's prose is competent rather than exciting, but she absolutely can tell a story. I sat up late to finish this which is always a good sign. I think, but am not sure, that this might be a first novel, and if so, it's a cracker. I'm certain that I'm looking forward to the sequels because it wouldn't take much technical improvement in her writing to make this series very good indeed. Shinjū feels quite like a Japanese equivalent to Lindsey Davis' Falco novels, and should appeal to some of her fans looking for change of setting.


Posted: Thu - February 5, 2004 at 09:53 PM