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Sunday, July 21, 2002


A rollicking romp through ancient Edo

THE PILLOW BOOK OF LADY WISTERIA, by Laura Joh Rowland. St. Martin's Minotaur: New York, 2002,292 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

While sports fans' attention is focused on Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle Mariners baseball fame, the exploits of Ichiro Sano, the Tokugawa shogunate's "Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations and People," are being cheered by enthusiasts of mystery fiction.

The year is 1693, and the scene of the crime is a top-ranked courtesan's boudoir in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, where Lord Mitsuyoshi -- the man about to be named the handpicked successor to the childless shogun, Tsunayoshi -- is found dead, a woman's hairpin thrust through his eye into his brain.

Investigator Sano launches a dragnet for the courtesan, Wisteria, who has mysteriously disappeared along with her missing "pillow book." Naturally, suspects are in abundance: Wisteria's regular patron, Lord Makino; her yarite (procuress), the owner of the hairpin; Fujio, a wandering balladeer who was Wisteria's former lover; and a seemingly endless stream of characters with their own apparent motives for doing away with the dashing young Mitsuyoshi.

While not exactly a locked-room mystery, the plot is complicated by the fact that the Yoshiwara was walled in, which meant that once its main gate was closed for the night, visitors were obliged to remain until dawn. Considering Yoshiwara's function, however, it was one place where customers could hardly complain about being held captive audience.

An American of Chinese-Korean ancestry, Laura Joh Rowland took inspiration for her novels from the swashbuckling samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and others, and fully does them justice. "The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria," her seventh to feature Sano since his debut as a lowly yoriki (sergeant) with the Edo police in "Shinju" (1994), adheres to Rowland's now-familiar formula, in which Sano undertakes a murder investigation at the behest of the shogun.

Tsunayoshi is portrayed as a superstitious, eccentric dolt -- which many considered he really was, if history is an accurate judge, for his having, among other things, enforced harsh edicts to protect stray dogs. In Rowland's novels, he is constantly manipulated by his chamberlain Yanagisawa, a brilliant, ruthless schemer who also happens to be Tsunayoshi's homosexual lover. And who harbors a visceral hatred for Sano.

As the scenes alternate between Yoshiwara and Edo Castle, a procession of meddling, conniving, devious characters force Sano to tiptoe through a minefield of shifting alliances and betrayals at every stage of his investigation. All the while, a sword dangles over Sano's neck, literally in this case, since the price of failure will almost certainly entail loss of his head.

The stumbling blocks to tracking down Mitsuyoshi's murderer are formidable indeed. Edo Chief Police Commissioner Hoshina, appointed to the post by his lover, chamberlain Yanagisawa, goes all-out to discredit Sano. To make matters worse, one of the town's magistrates, eager to ingratiate himself with the shogun, orders the execution of several key suspects before Sano can determine their real guilt or innocence.

An already convoluted plot gets a few extra twists and turns when it is learned that before his marriage, Sano had bedded Wisteria, arranged to purchase her contract with the brothel and then set her free. Which, in the eyes of the authorities, makes Sano himself a prime suspect.

Sano, however, is very much faithful to his wife Reiko, the daughter of a magistrate and a wannabe detective in her own right. In "Black Lotus," Rowland's previous work, Reiko was nearly killed by a fanatic religious sect headed by a devious blind priest -- a story with not-so-coincidental parallels to the notorious AUM Supreme Truth cult. This time, Sano allows his headstrong wife to seek clues among the cloistered female aristocrats in Edo Castle while he and Hirata, his loyal deputy, pound Edo's streets.

With medieval Japan as her historical backdrop, Rowland successfully overlays such established genres as the police procedural and husband-and-wife detective team. She even manages to squeeze romantic comedy into a subplot, as Hirata desperately seeks permission to marry Midori, his true love, before she begins to "show."

Now well established in the historical mystery genre, Rowland's dazzling array of entertaining narratives continues to score points with readers, with exotic locales, a flair for dramatics and -- that rarest of literary portrayals -- an Asian male in a heroic role. Highly recommended.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.

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