(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

When Laura Joh Rowland decided to write mysteries, she deliberately chose a historical period. Driven to write novels in the style of classical detective stories where good sleuthing makes all the difference and looking for an exciting setting where both crime and justice could flourish, she settled on late seventeenth century Japan. It was a time of strictly set and enforced social standards, in some ways similar to Victorian England, and gave rise to imaginative criminals and colorful renegades.

In creating her hero, Sano Ichir, Rowland took advantage of the period’s emphasis on an active police force to ensure the peace of the Tokugawa shogunate. Rowland’s mysteries take on a unique dimension from the precarious balance between actual police work, in the modern sense of upholding order in a burgeoning metropolis where citizens of many classes compete and private desires clash, and the political dimension of police as upholders of an authoritarian regime.

Beginning with her debut novel, Shinj, Rowland successfully overcame key challenges of the historical mystery genre. She escaped the temptation to bog down the plot with too many historical details and managed to create a sympathetic yet still believable historical protagonist. An utterly historically correct rendering of the actual thoughts, actions, and beliefs of a bygone era in a foreign country always risks alienating, if not offending, modern American readers. Examples of historically accurate details that might offend in Rowland’s case include a samurai’s explicit permission to strike down any offending peasant and then-prevailing attitudes toward women and the less privileged.

It is to Rowland’s credit that she has managed to bridge successfully the gap between the mind-set of the past and the present and, in her protagonists, has developed characters who gain and maintain the sympathy of her readers. In her second novel, Bundori, Rowland presents readers with the samurai code, which because of emphasis on the samurai’s absolute, unquestioning loyalty and obedience to his lord is likely to strike modern American readers as questionable if not absurd, but she endows Sano with sufficient iconoclastic characteristics to gain readers’ sympathy and an understanding for his culturally prescribed position.

In The Concubine’s Tattoo, Rowland took the inspired step of placing at Sano’s side his young wife, Lady Reiko. An exceptional and utterly unconventional woman who defies traditional historical restraints on a noble woman of the Genroku era, Reiko almost steals the show from Sano in Black Lotus (2001) and The Dragon King’s Palace (2003). Readers may get the impression that Reiko’s character is the more dynamic of the two. Her independence is unusual for the period, yet within the realm of the possible.

What distinguishes Rowland’s series is that the prime characters develop in time, create a family, and advance in their careers. They are not the timeless detectives of American crime classics whose lives change little from case to case. Soon after their marriage, Sano and Lady Reiko have a son.

Just as her series appeared to lose steam, Rowland decided on the bold stroke of changing history: Sano and Reiko’s longtime adversary, Grand Chamberlain Yanagisawa, is exiled, and Sano occupies his office at the end of The Perfumed...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)