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Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005


Corruption and intrigue in high places

THE ASSASSIN'S TOUCH, by Laura Joh Rowland. New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2005, 312 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
BEAUTIFUL GHOSTS, by Eliot Pattison. New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 360 pp., 2004, $24.95 (cloth).

A day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast, I fired off an e-mail message to New Orleans-based mystery author Laura Joh Rowland -- who just weeks before had kindly sent me an inscribed copy of her latest novel for review -- and was relieved to hear from her a day later. She was safely camping out with relatives up north and in good spirits.

She also promised me that her next novel would include a storm of similar magnitude. ("But Sano and Edo come out of it much better than New Orleans will," she predicted.)

"The Assassin's Touch" is the 10th in Rowland's series featuring samurai sleuth Sano Ichiro, who has moved up the ladder from plodding cop on the beat to chief investigator, and now chamberlain to the Shogun.

The Sano stories are notable for their almost dizzying episodes of intrigue, menace and betrayals at every turn, but this work, set in 1695, appears slightly less frenetic than earlier tales.

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi -- an eccentric who was nicknamed the "Dog Shogun" for his bizarre edicts protecting man's best friend -- is portrayed as being dim as ever. When told that Ejima Senzaemon, chief of the metsuke (intelligence service), had just died, Tsunayoshi furrows his brow before asking, "Do I know him?"

As other high-ranking members of the government begin keeling over in succession, Sano must determine if their deaths are accidental or, as he suspects, foul play.

Sano may be less vulnerable in his new position as right-hand man to the Shogun, but the weaknesses of his subordinates threaten to undermine his authority. Hirata, Sano's loyal sidekick, has been moved up to fill his boss' former post as chief investigator; but an unhealed leg wound has him crippled and in perpetual agony. Once again, Sano's strong-willed wife Reiko insists on helping him in investigations, a source of ongoing friction in the Sano household. And even in situations where the fate of the nation appears to lie in the balance, Sano's archrivals would prefer to see him fail simply out of personal spite.

All these have become predictable elements in Rowland's stories. While I doubt if her Keystone Kop antics were intended to be any more than exaggerated lampoons of execrably bad crisis management in the Edo Period, I suspect some readers might feel inclined to compare the screwball shogun with their own leaders. In some ways, alas, things haven't improved much since 1695.

Wayward son

Eliot Pattison's love affair with Tibet has made him one of its most eloquent advocates. This is done through the vehicle of fiction, by a Chinese protagonist who has been made to see the light. Shan Tao Yun, a policeman whose only crime back in Beijing was honesty that displeased an important official, is on "unofficial release" from the oppressive laogai ("reform through labor") gulag.

Although Shan can be returned to prison at any time, he is allowed to roam the countryside, having made himself useful as a communications conduit with the Tibetans whom the Chinese administrators have been unable to crush. Accompanied by a group of lamas (Buddhist monks), he has adopted the same ascetic lifestyle, while putting his dormant detective skills to use to solve some of the planet's most exotic crimes.

Pattison's previous work, "Bone Mountain," touched on the plundering of Tibet's natural resources. "Beautiful Ghosts" is about those who would kill for its historical treasures. In addition to solving a murder, Shan must contend with a wonderfully spun archaeological mystery.

But Shan, who has taken it upon himself to shoulder a personal burden of guilt for his country's oppression of Tibetans, finds the burden even heavier when he learns that his son, who had been found guilty of "antisocial" behavior back in China, has been sentenced to the local work camp.

In any series involving crime and detection, it's always interesting to watch how the main protagonist evolves within his milieu. Pattison's earlier works had taken a heavily political slant, with Chinese military and civilian administrators portrayed as overseers of a government policy aimed at eradicating Tibetans who clung to their old religious ways.

Their methods involved a mixture of brutality and desire to subjugate, and were colored with an attitude of contempt. The latest work, to some degree, may reflect the impact of China's surging economic growth. Because Tibet is becoming more of a land of opportunity, the political tone has been moderated somewhat as the Chinese overlords now find themselves in the position to advance their careers or even become rich.

As the "roof of the world" becomes increasingly festooned with TV antennas, it will be interesting to see how Pattison and other authors reconcile Tibet's spiritual past with its 21st-century incarnation.

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