Rowland's 11th 17th-century Japanese historical (after 2005's The Assassin's Touch) is even more of a page-turner than its predecessors. Sano Ichiro has risen through the ranks from his position as the shogun's special investigator to the powerful station of chamberlain, but the shift in his duties has not shielded him from political opponents. He faces his greatest crisis yet when his terrified pregnant wife, Reiko, is discovered naked and blood-covered beside the corpse of a nobleman suspected of treason. Aided by his friend and successor, Hirata, the dogged and principled samurai sleuth must probe both personal and political motives for the crime, even as he entertains doubts about his beloved's innocence. Rowland matches her talent for storytelling with her ability to render convincing historical detail in this long-running but fresh series. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
In brutal 17th-century Japan, Sano Ichiro (The Assassin's Touch), the shogun's chamberlain, faces his most deadly case when his pregnant wife, Reiko, is found naked and covered in blood beside the body of Lord Mori, the shogun's heir. Ichiro's enemies have long been after him, and now they just might be able to topple him from his high government post. Reiko, who has been acting independently as an investigator and protector of the weak, finds that she must go undercover to find why she is caught in this deadly situation. Like her previous books in the series, Rowland's latest is a gem of exquisite plotting and characterization. Fans who have read all the other entries may also want to check out I.J. Parker's historical mysteries (e.g., The Hell Screen) set in 11th-century Japan. Rowland lives in New Orleans. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 7/06.] Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
A 17th-century Japanese sleuth must clear his pregnant wife of a murder charge. Tokyo, 1698. In the middle of the night, Most Honorable Investigator Hirata bursts into the grand estate of Lord Mori, recently at political odds with his cousin Lord Matsudaira. Hirata expects to bring the equivocal nobleman in for questioning on suspicion of treason. Instead, he finds Lord Mori brutally murdered and disemboweled next to Reiko, the pregnant wife of Hirata's master Sano, the chamberlain. Sano's position saves Reiko from immediate arrest and incarceration. Flashbacks give her side of the story: A young teahouse dancer named Lily has appealed to Reiko to help locate her abducted son. Lord Mori, a pedophile who regularly kidnaps boys for his sexual pleasure, is the culprit. (While not illegal, the practice is severely disapproved of and, if known, would ruin Lord Mori.) Reiko, who has become a trusted friend of Lord Mori and his dowdy wife in order to expose him, has no memory of his murder. The glamorous Lady Mori, far from the wallflower Reiko has described, tells a very different story, angrily accusing Reiko of having an affair with her husband and murdering him. As in Sano's previous cases (The Assassin's Touch, 2005, etc.), Reiko strikes out on her own to find answers, well aware that her life is at stake. Rowland's historical detail and graceful prose enhance another solid mystery. Agent: Pam Ahearn/Ahearn Agency Inc.
From the Publisher
“Like the big, sprawling novels of James Clavell, the Sano Ichiro mysteries are full of captivating detail, with lively characters and solid stories.” Booklist
“Delicate prose and a plot full of the overtones and undercurrents that shade real life push Rowland's latest historical beyond the standard whodunit.” Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
Thunder rumbled in the summer dawn. Storm clouds absorbed the light breaking above the hills outside Edo, while ashes drifted upon smoke from a fire during the night. Up a broad avenue in the daimyo district, where the feudal lords had their city estates, rode a squadron of samurai. Their horses’ hooves clattered, disturbing the quiet; their lanterns flickered in the humid air. Night watchmen, slouching against the high stone walls that lined the street, jerked to attention, surprised by the sudden excitement at the end of a long, uneventful shift. Windows opened in the barracks that topped the walls; sleepy, curious soldiers peered out as the squadron halted outside the gate of Lord Mori, daimyo of Suwo and Nagato provinces.
Hirata dismounted, strode up to the soldiers guarding the portals, and said, “I’m here to raid this estate. Let us in.”
Resentment evident in their faces, the guards swung open the gates. They’d spied the triple-hollyhock-leaf crests, symbols of the ruling Tokugawa regime, that Hirata and his men wore on their armor tunics. Even the powerful provincial lords must bow to Tokugawa authority. And they recognized Hirata as the shogun’s s¯osakan-sama—Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. They dared not disobey him.
As Hirata invaded the estate with the hundred men of his detective corps, he walked with a limp from a serious injury that had healed but still caused him pain. Yet he kept up a quick pace at the head of his troops. Cries of confusion erupted as Lord Mori’s troops swarmed the courtyard.
“Round everybody up,” Hirataordered his men. “No one leaves or enters the estate until we’re done. Search this whole place. You know what to look for.”
The detectives hastened to comply. Shouting, defiance, and tussles met them. Hirata, accompanied by a team of troops and his two principal retainers, Detectives Inoue and Arai, marched through the inner gate. Across a formal garden of rocks and twisted shrubs loomed the daimyo’s mansion, a large, half-timbered structure with multiple wings and peaked tile roofs, mounted on a granite foundation. A samurai bustled out the door and rushed down the stone path to meet Hirata.
“I’m Akera Kanko, chief retainer to Lord Mori.” He was some fifty years of age, pompous and stout. “Why are you intruding on my master?”
“He’s under investigation for treason,” Hirata said as he and his men advanced on the mansion. “I’m going to inspect his premises and interrogate everybody here.”
“Treason?” Akera huffed in outrage; he ran to keep up with Hirata. “With all due respect, but Lord Mori is no traitor. He’s a loyal subject of the shogun and an ally of his honorable cousin Lord Matsudaira.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Hirata said.
Several months of investigation had convinced him that Lord Mori was conspiring against Lord Matsudaira, who ruled Japan through the shogun. During the three years since he’d seized power after a war with an opposing faction, Lord Matsudaira had evolved from a just, reasonable man to a tyrant fearful of losing his position. He’d demoted and banished officials he didn’t trust, and subjected the daimyo to strict supervision and harsh fines for perceived offenses. This had spawned widespread disgruntlement and many plots to overthrow him.
Hirata mounted the stairs with growing excitement. Today he would find proof of the conspiracy. His investigation would end with the arrest, conviction, and ritual suicide of a traitor. Hirata would serve his honor by defending his superior at a time when his honor badly needed serving and his reputation with Lord Matsudaira and the shogun could use some improvement. He was thirty-one years old, with a career as a police officer behind him and three years in this post, and he should have been able to stay out of trouble, but it seemed he never could.
Now Akera looked terrified. Everyone knew that the penalty for treason was death, and not just for the traitor, but for all his family and close associates. “There must be a mistake!”
“Where is Lord Mori?” Hirata asked.
“In his private chambers,” Akera said.
“Take me there,” Hirata said.
“No one is allowed to disturb Lord Mori without his permission,” Akera objected.
“I don’t need his permission,” Hirata said. “I have Lord Matsudaira’s orders.”
Resigned yet nervous, Akera led Hirata, Inoue, and Arai to a compound at the heart of the estate. There, a spacious garden, landscaped with lush trees, was so quiet that Hirata could hear frogs peeping and crickets chirping. Insects swarmed over a reed-fringed pond coated with green scum. A cloying, sweet scent of flowers mingled with the rank odor of privies. At the center stood a rustic villa. Ivy draped its barred windows; deep eaves sheltered the veranda. Hirata and his companions approached the villa along one of several covered corridors that extended from the main mansion. They bypassed the guards stationed outside and stepped into the entryway.
The detectives shone their lanterns beyond, illuminating a maze-like space divided by partitions. The air was warmer and staler than outside. Hirata had a sudden impression that something was wrong. He and the detectives exchanged frowns. At the same moment they heard whimpering. The sour, metallic odor of blood hit them.
Behind them, on the veranda, Akera asked, “What is it?”
Hirata motioned Akera to keep quiet. He and his men tiptoed through the maze of rooms, skirted partitions, edged around furniture. The whimpering grew louder, punctuated by sobs. It came from the villa’s far end, where a gap yawned in the partitions. The smell of blood grew stronger. Hirata and his men halted and peered through the gap.
Inside was a bedchamber inhabited by two nude figures, one a man, the other a woman. The man’s heavyset body lay prone on a futon. The woman knelt close to the man, bent over him. Her long, black hair veiled her nakedness and her face. She whimpered, sobbed, and gasped as she shook his shoulders. Where his genitals should have been, a red wound glistened. Blood that had spilled from the wound, and from gashes in his torso, drenched the bed and spread in a thick puddle on the tatami floor. A chrysanthemum rested in the puddle, its cut stem submerged, its white petals stained crimson. Nearby, alongside a heap of robes, lay a dagger with a bloodstained blade and the man’s severed penis and testicles.
Hirata and his men exclaimed in horrified unison. Akera, who’d followed them, cried, “Lord Mori!”
The woman looked up. Her hair fell aside to reveal her bare breasts and swollen abdomen. Red smears of Lord Mori’s blood colored her pale skin. Her delicate, pretty features were contorted by shock and terror, her eyes wild. As she tried to cover herself with her hands, Hirata noted that she was some five months pregnant.
Akera rushed into the room and fell to his knees beside Lord Mori. He shouted his master’s name and seized his hand, but Lord Mori neither answered nor stirred.
Detective Arai crouched, felt Lord Mori’s pulse, and bent over to listen for breath. “He’s dead.”
But Hirata barely listened. He and the woman stared at each other in amazed mutual recognition. “Lady Reiko,” Hirata said in a voice hushed with disbelief.
She was the wife of Chamberlain Sano, the man Hirata called master. Hirata’s horror at the mutilation and death of Lord Mori increased tenfold. “Merciful gods, what are you doing here?”
Reiko shook her head as if dazed. She cowered under the men’s scrutiny, while outside the thunder boomed and rain fell in a torrent.
Akera staggered over to her. “She murdered Lord Mori!” he cried, his face livid with rage, his finger jabbing at Reiko in accusation. “She cut off his manhood and killed him!”
Copyright © 2006 by Laura Joh Rowland. All rights reserved.