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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mystery, history and excitement in old Japan

The Ronin's Mistress, by Laura Joh Rowland. St. Martin's Minotaur, 2012, 324 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)
Death on an Autumn River, by I.J. Parker. Kindle edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2012, $7.99

In "The 47th Samurai" (2007), American thriller writer Stephen Hunter put a contemporary twist on the famous story of Japan's 47 ronin, teaming up his U.S. Marine sniper hero with a squad of Japanese soldiers who assault a yakuza stronghold in modern-day Tokyo.

Now back in 1703, "The Ronin's Mistress," Laura Joh Rowland's 15th in the saga of Edo lawman Sano Ichiro, is interwoven with the account of the real 47 ronin, who were a troop of disenfranchised samurai from the province of Ako (in present-day Hyogo Prefecture) that conducted a successful vendetta against Kira Yoshinaka, a palace official blamed for the death of their lord, Asano Naganori, two years earlier.

Rowland's latest retains the same thread as her previous works, which is making protagonist Ichiro Sano scramble to survive a long-running string of intrigues hatched by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the shogun's amoral and power-hungry chamberlain. No matter how many times Sano demonstrates his loyalty and competence, the vindictive Yanagisawa remains determined to discredit him in the eyes of the effete, feeble-minded shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

Watching Sano hunting down malefactors while struggling to dodge the outrageous machinations of his sworn enemy is the literary equivalent of a Harold Lloyd comedy.

Sano's investigation into the 47 ronin — assisted by his strong-willed wife Reiko — centers on the personal motives of Oishi Yoshio, leader of the vendetta. Did Oishi avenge Lord Asano in accordance with the code of bushido, as the traditional tale maintains, or did he have some ulterior motive? And did Lord Kira, as some revisionist historians have alleged, receive just deserts?

In Rowland's capable hands this bloody historical incident gets twisted about like a Rubik's cube, but by the end all the colors are aligned.

"Death on an Autumn River" is I.J. Parker's ninth full-length novel in the ongoing saga of Heian Era (794-1185) Ministry of Justice official Sugawara Akitada. Accompanied by Sadenari, a junior clerk, Akitada travels by boat from Kyoto to Osaka port to investigate suspected customs violations that may point to piracy.

The story draws out the sharp contrasts between the capital, Kyoto, and rough-and-tumble commercial town of Osaka, where Akitada's investigation is stymied from the get-go. Are the recalcitrant local authorities lazy, incompetent or in collusion with the troublemakers?

The story also contains a parallel investigation into the suspicious death by drowning of a young female who appeared to have been working as a prostitute on an island in the Yodo River, an angle that gives the author an opportunity to introduce the Koreans who immigrated to the Kansai area, where they served as transmitters of culture from mainland Asia.

After the troublesome young clerk Sadenari disappears, Akitada finds himself isolated and in trouble. Reinforcements arrive in the form of his deputy Tora, a rough-and-tumble former soldier, but the two are forced to elude several close brushes with death before finally putting the villains out of business.

In this episode Seimei, the elderly retainer to Akitada's family who figures from the beginning of the series, finally dies, and by the story's conclusion the Sugawara household is on the verge of recruiting an unusual new deputy with unorthodox investigative skills.

While set in Heian Japan, Parker's novels invite favorable comparison with the Judge Dee mysteries, set in China's Tang Era, penned by the late Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik. Both authors are Europeans who have adopted the Asian literary model of "righteous officials" who battle corruption while showing sympathy for the downtrodden.

Please note that Parker's book is currently being sold only in electronic form. However, Kindle reader software can be downloaded for free from Amazon.com, enabling it to be read on any Windows or Mac PC, tablet computer or smartphone. Several of Parker's previously published short stories and novelettes are now also available for purchase electronically.

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