Book: Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland

A pretty good detective novel set in 17th century Japan, but requires a considerable suspension of disbelief

Laura Joh Rowland
HarperCollins 2001
ISBN: 0-06-100950-4
437 pages

Shinju is a detective novel set in Tokyo in 1689. Or as the people there called it, Edo of Genroku 1. Our detective is Sano Ichiro, a yoriki, or police commander. He's also a samurai, as he would have to be in order to get that job. (By the middle of the 17th century, Japan's military dictators, or shoguns, had brought sufficient order to the country that samurai were mainly administrators rather than warriors. Though they still carried their swords and retained the right to kill peasants for no reason.)

Ichiro is that rarest of things, a maverick samurai. That's an idea that requires a pretty colossal suspension of disbelief. A maverick samurai is about as likely as a free-thinking member of the Inquisition. If you can manage the suspension of disbelief, Shinju is a pretty good detective story in an interesting setting. If you can't, well, not much of the book is left. As for me, I just about managed it.

As the book starts, Ichiro (his given name) is riding on horseback through the section of Edo that he's responsible for and comes across a constable (or doshin) who's among a crowd that is attacking a suspected arsonist. Ichiro stops the beating, determines that the man isn't the arsonist, tells his subordinate to look for the real arsonist, and rides off, glad that he has prevented a miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, that's not the sort of thing that an Edo-era police commander is supposed to do and he's unsubtly warned off doing any more of this undignified investigating by his boss.

Then, Ichiro is put in charge of a case that needs to be handled delicately. A fisherman has pulled two bodies from the river. They appear to have been a double love-suicide (the shinju of the title). The man was a lowly artist, but the woman was the daughter of a powerful feudal lord. Ichiro ignores his boss's warning and investigates the deaths. Pretty quickly he decides that it wasn't suicide. Investigating further, he finds debauchery and more. And, naturally, he gets into trouble along the way.

The book's plot is good but not great. There are some twists, but no big surprises. The setting is interesting, but few of the characters are memorable. If you think that you'd find a detective novel set in feudal Japan interesting and can manage the suspension of disbelief that's required, you'll very probably enjoy Shinju. Otherwise, there are books to put ahead of it on your list.

Posted: Mon - January 2, 2006 at 07:03   Main   Category: