Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Police work is hardly a new phenomenon. There’ve been judges, magistrates, and police officers since long before there was the kind of professional police force we think of now. Today, let’s take a look at one of those earlier police detectives and turn the spotlight on Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū, the first of her historical novels to feature Sano Ichirō.
It’s 1687 in Edo (now Tokyo), and Sano is a yoriki, a senior investigator and police officer. One day, his supervisor, Magistrate Ogyu, instructs him to handle what he refers to as ‘a small matter.’ Two bodies have been pulled from the Sumida River; one is Niu Yukiko, a ‘well born’ young woman. The other is an artist named Noriyoshi. A note found with the bodies suggests that this is a shinjū, a double suicide. It’s not uncommon in this era for lovers who can’t be together to take this course of action, and Ogyu makes it very clear that that’s what he wants Sano’s report to say. He wants the matter handled as quickly and as delicately as possible, since the Niu family is very powerful and wealthy.
Sano has a strong sense of duty to obey his superior. But he has just as much of a sense of obligation to do his job well. And in this case, that means asking questions and getting information about the deaths. It’s not long before those questions lead Sano to suspect that this might be a case of murder, at least where Noriyushi is concerned.
Sano decides to start with the people closest to the victims. From them, he learns that there might have been motive to kill Noriyushi, since there are stories he was a blackmailer. That doesn’t explain why Yukiko was killed, but it’s a start. As he continues with his investigation, though, Sano soon finds that no-one is inclined to give him a lot of information, especially not the Niu family. And they are powerful enough that wise people don’t cross them. And Ogyu lets Sano know that he will lose his position (and suffer the accompanying family shame and embarrassment) if he keeps asking questions.
Matters don’t get any easier when Ogyu is informed that Sano must stop interfering. When it becomes clear, even to the authorities, that Yuriko and Noriyushi were murdered, the police make an arrest. But the man they arrest claims he’s innocent. In the meantime, there’s been another death. It’s obvious after this that someone is willing to kill Sano, too, in order to keep the truth about these murders hidden. In the end, though, Sano uncovers what really happened to Yukiko and Noriyushi. It turns out that this tragedy is more than just a star-crossed, fateful love affair. In the process of learning the truth, Sano also uncovers some other secrets that some powerful people do not want him to know.
One of the important elements of this novel is its context: 17th Century Japan. As Sano follows leads, talks to witnesses and so on, readers see what life was like in that place at that time. There are certainly scenes of daily life such as meals, entertainment and the like. There is also a close look at the politics, family structure, and larger social structure of the times. It’s a very class-based system, and that fact makes itself felt in a number of ways. For example, two of Sano’s peers, Yamaga and Hayashi, were born to a higher social class than Sano was. You might say they inherited their positions as yoriki. But Sano got his position through a patron, a member of a powerful family whose members owe an old debt to Sano’s family. So although he and his peers have the same official rank, they make it very clear that they have nothing but contempt for him, since he is not much more than a commoner to them.
Readers also get a sense of the beliefs and customs of the time. For instance, it’s considered ‘unclean’ to touch the body of someone who’s dead. We see how this belief plays out when Sano visits the local morgue to see if he can get information from the bodies themselves. The morgue custodian, Dr. Ito Genboku, is considered at best a social misfit, but as he puts it,
‘‘I can pursue my studies in peace here. No one care, as long as the morgue operates smoothly.’’
No-one else is willing to do the work of the morgue, and even Ito doesn’t directly handle the bodies very much. For that, he relies on his assistant, who is a member of the lowest social class.
The custom of discussing difficult or delicate matters in a subtle way is also clear in the novel. Very often, things are hinted at, rather than outright stated. But there is no mistaking what those things mean.
The novel also has an element of the police procedural, since Sano is a police officer. In part, he solves the mystery through observation, deduction and the like. But he also uses his status as a yoriki to question witnesses, examine evidence and the like. And, like today’s police detectives, he’s expected to make reports, inform his supervisor of what he’s doing, and so on. Sano’s status as a police officer also gives the reader a look at what policing was like at this time. For example, Sano is not expected to spend his time patrolling, bringing suspects in and so on. There are others of lower rank (analogous to today’s uniformed officers) who do that work. In fact, he gets in trouble with Ogyu right from the beginning for not adhering to that custom.
The solution to the mystery is not a happy one. Several lives are lost, some of innocent people. And the reason for the original murders is a very sad one. Knowing who the killer is doesn’t make everything all right again, either. There is also the violence you might expect in a novel that describes a time before those arrested (or even suspected) had any rights. That said, though, I can say without spoiling the story that Sano himself is vindicated.
Shinjū shows the reader what life was like in what is now Tokyo during the late 17th Century. It features a mystery that reflects the times, and a detective who is determined to follow the code of ethics to which he is dedicated. But what’s your view? Have you read Shinjū? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 28 March/Tuesday, 29 March – The Hot Rock – Donald Westlake
Monday, 4 April/Tuesday, 5 April – A Dark and Twisted Tide – Sharon Bolton
Monday, 11 April/Tuesday, 12 April – Unidentified Woman #15 – David Housewright.