In The Spotlight: Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū

>In The Spotlight: Wilkie Collins' The MoonstoneHello, All,

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.



Filed under Laura Joh Rowland, Shinjū

18 responses to “In The Spotlight: Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū

  1. Col

    Another new author and book you’ve introduced me to, but I’m happy to settle for your take on it thanks.

  2. Another new to me author this week Margot – this sounds interesting, although as you point out quite sad too.

    • It is both, Cleo, if I’m being honest. One of the things that struck me about it was the real sense of 17th Century Tokyo. Rowland has, I think, done her ‘homework.’

  3. I always enjoy a historical crime novel if it’s well researched, as this one sounds to be. You get the double hit of a good plot along with an insight into the culture of another time and place. Another intriguing spotlight, Margot!

    • Thanks, FictionFan. I will admit, this one’s not short. But it does really have a solid sense of time and place. And a mystery plot, too. And yes, it’s well-researched. I think Rowland definitely ‘did her homework.’

  4. I usually pass on historical fiction set that many centuries back, Margot. But someday I may give it a try to learn more about Japan.

  5. I’ve had this author far too long on my e-reader – being a Japanophile, I had spotted her series early on, but just never got around to reading it. Thanks for giving me a bit of a nudge in the right direction…

    • I thought of you, Marina Sofia, as I was reading this, and thinking that the setting and context would appeal to you. If you do get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Margot, Someday you will have to tell us through what channels you come to some of the unusual books you read. This one looks great.

  7. Fascinating – an era and place I know nothing about. This sounds like a very worthwhile piece of historical crime fictiion.

    • It really does offer a solid look at the time and place, Moira. And I can say without spoiling the story that there are definitely some great descriptions of clothing.

  8. Crime fiction set in 1687 Japan? Margot, this sounds quite fascinating, the elements of the case and investigation, including police procedural, are reminiscent of modern detective fiction. Good choice and review.

    • Thank you very much, Prashant. You do have a well-taken point that even in crime fiction that takes place so long ago, there are elements of today’s police procedural.

  9. mudpuddle

    sounds like a combination of “pillow book” and mike hammer! i may tempted…

    • Interesting comparison, Mudpuddle. I would say Sano is much more compassionate in his way than Hammer generally is. And he doesn’t reflect a particular political agenda. But he has a similar devotion to duty. If you do read this, I’ll be interested in what you thought of it.

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