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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012

Serious business of murder turned into entertainment


THE INCENSE GAME, by Laura Joh Rowland. Minotaur Books, 2012, 290 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)
ONE RED BASTARD, by Ed Lin. Minotaur Books, 2012, 280 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)

Since publication of her first mystery, "Shinju," 18 years ago, Laura Joh Rowland has churned out about one book a year.

A Rowland novel is like one of those old Harold Lloyd silent comedies, in which the klutzy star finds himself dangling from a building 12 stories above the street, and then a bird starts pecking his head. After piling on one impossible predicament after the next, Rowland then masterfully extricates him, until it's time for the next nerve-wracking installment.

These cliffhanger scenarios are made possible because Chamberlain Ichiro Sano is subservient to a blooming idiot. And it's true that the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), was quite eccentric. Over his three-decade reign he got religion and ordered the feeding and sheltering of some 50,000 dogs in Edo. (He is also believed to have been murdered by his wife, who acted for the good of the country.)

In "The Incense Game," a major earthquake has devastated Edo on the last day of 1703. As Sano supervises the city's recovery, three women are discovered dead in a ruined house, the home of an incense master. An autopsy confirms they were killed by poisoned incense. Two victims are daughters (by different mothers) of the powerful Lord Hosokawa, who demands Sano break off his duties to find their killer. Should Sano refuse, Hosokawa threatens to side with other rebellious daimyo (lords) to overthrow the Tokugawas.

Sano's headstrong wife, Reiko, who's expecting a child, hides her condition from her husband to assist him. Sano's investigation eventually determines that the incense master, Madame Usugumo, had used a type of chemical similar to truth serum, which she mixed into her incense. After entranced students confided their deepest personal secrets, she extorted money from them. Among the key suspects in the killings are two important figures, both of whom are involved in palace intrigues. One, the head priest of the Zojoji Temple, enjoyed an intimate relationship with the shogun's mother. The other presides over Edo's Confucius Temple.

Meanwhile, ex-Chamberlain Yanagisawa — brilliant, devious, amoral and utterly determined to discredit the loyal Sano — is back, still bent on installing a member of his own family to usurp the Tokugawa dynasty. Sano and his teenage son, Masahiro, now a young page in the palace, must fend off both the pedophilic shogun and his hunchbacked cousin — the brilliant but thoroughly unpleasant Lord Ienobu.

In another subplot continuing from Rowland's previous work, "The Ronin's Mistress," Sano's most competent retainer, Hirata, has come under the control of three shady characters who dabble in the dark arts, and who are clearly are up to no good. By having fallen under their influence, Hirata is in no position to provide support in his master's greatest time of need.

Rowland piles on one seemingly impossible situation after the next, forcing her protagonist to negotiate a series of predicaments in which he slips, trips, stumbles and lurches, but always manages to stay on his feet and keep his head on his shoulders — no easy task in early 18th century Edo.

'One Red Bastard" is Ed Lin's third novel featuring Chinese-American New York City policeman Robert Chow. Assigned to the Chinatown beat largely as a public relations move, Chow is determined to move up from his largely ceremonial position as a token Chinese cop and earn a detective's shield.

Chow's a flawed character, having fought off PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) and alcoholism from his combat experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam. But he's tough, determined and has earned the respect of his fellow cops.

"One Red Bastard" is set in 1976, on the eve of the U.S. rapprochement with China. Chen Xiaochuan, who represents Li Na, the daughter of China's recently deceased chairman Mao Zedong, is found dead of blunt force trauma, on the street in Chinatown. The last person to have seen him alive was Lonnie, Chow's journalist girlfriend, who had been sent to interview Chen for her news agency. And her alibi appears weak.

Chow's efforts to absolve his love interest of the crime take his investigation to the bitter rivalry between pro-Taiwan and pro-mainland factions in Chinatown. Was Chen's killing politically motivated? Or was it the result of some personal grudge?

Lin's Chinese-American protagonist is a native New Yorker and very much part of that city's multicultural mix. But what endears Chow most to the reader is his wry observations about the city and its colorful cast of characters. Chow's first-person narrative is peppered with laconic expressions and humorous metaphors that make it difficult to read a Lin novel without breaking into frequent grins.

Like Rowland, Lin demonstrates his craft as a writer by transforming the deadly serious business of murder into an entertaining read.

Mark Schreiber is a fanatical collector and reader of mystery and thriller fiction set in Asia.


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