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By Laura Joh Rowland

Villard Books, 1996
(pbk. Harper, 1997)

Reviewed by J. Ashley

This second book in the Ichiro Sano series picks up with Sano beginning his position of Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People for the shogun. The setting is Edo (modern-day Tokyo), late seventeenth century.

Unfortunately, the shogun doesn't pay much attention to Sano; instead Sano endures the mundane duties of helping the historian catalog documents and rigorous training with the castle samurai.

Then an old samurai is found murdered in the city. Bizarrely, his head is removed, perfumed, and mounted on a board--in the fashion of the traditional bundori or war trophy.

The shogun calls in Sano to investigate. Sano soon discovers that another, similar murder has occurred, and also that the dead samurai had ancestors who fought in the battle that brought the Tokugawas to power. Sano suspects he will find answers in the past.

But his inquiries are hampered by Yanagisawa, the shogun's chamberlain, a power-hungry man, who is also the shogun's lover and who has the shogun well under his thumb.

At every turn Sano must contend with the chamberlain who instructs the police not to help him, slanders him subtly, and sends a young and beautiful shrine attendant, Aoi, to "help" Sano by giving him spiritual guidance (in truth, Yanagisawa has ordered her to mislead him).

On top of this, more bundori murders occur, and Sano is hard pressed to answer the shogun's demands of why the killer has not been caught. Sano's reputation deteriorates in the gossip-laden city, and the father of the family who had showed interest in marriage negotiations with him withdraws his offer.

Frustrated, Sano perseveres. He finds unlikely help in the form of a young police lieutenant, from the doctor in Edo's morgue, and from the shogun's librarian. As the investigation goes on, Sano finds himself caught between his duty to the shogun, his promise to his father to seek honor, and his growing love for Aoi.

I usually don't like serial killer stories, just because I don't have a taste for them. But Sano's story was moving. He is not a romantically portrayed samurai--he does not have perfect prowess at swordsmanship--and he is hampered by real problems: loneliness, doubt, and knowledge of his own mistakes. This story is about Ichiro Sano, not the murders.

Rowland paints a vivid portrait of old Japan and the Japanese people. She shows both good and evil aspects of the society, resulting in an unbiased picture. I will be interested in reading about Sano as Rowland unfolds him.

The first book in this series is SHINJU. Following books are THE WAY OF THE TRAITOR, THE CONCUBINE'S TATOO, and THE SAMURAI'S WIFE.

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