A criminal investigator of unswerving integrity, tackling crimes that often have implications for the stability of his government, set in feudal Japan—this is the premise, and unusual time and setting, that Laura Joh Rowland has chosen for her long-running Sano Ichiro series, which began with 1994’s Shinju (Random House). The Incense Game (Minotaur) is the 16th entry, and it probes the poisoning of three women in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake.
Rowland’s intricate novels, which work both as standalone multifaceted fair-play whodunits and as the continuing saga of its hero, second-in-command to Shogun Tokugawa, and his ferociously independent and more-than-capable wife, Reiko, also present a nuanced, and three-dimensional, portrait of 1689–1703 Edo (what is now Tokyo).
Rowland grew up in Harper Woods, Mich., the granddaughter of Chinese and Korean immigrants. (Rowland is her married name.) “We were,” she says, “the only Asians in an otherwise all-white suburb. I really felt like an oddity. The schools taught nothing about Asian history or culture.” After college, Rowland held a number of jobs—as a chemist, a microbiologist, a quality engineer with Lockheed Martin—but none of them really spoke to her. She tried freelancing as an illustrator, and then enrolled in writing classs and there found her passion.
Rowland’s love of mysteries come from her father, a big fan of Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane, and other classic detective writers. As an adult, Rowland was fortunate that her decision to try to write a mystery novel coincided with a broadening market for historical mysteries, such as Stephen Saylor’s Roman Blood (1991), set in ancient Rome. Readers in the early 1990s were also ready for detectives more exotic than, say, tough-guy PIs or genteel amateurs.
Since Sano doesn’t have DNA forensics to help him solve crimes, he must rely on logic and his knowledge of human nature. Rowland often has to remind herself that Sano “isn’t subject to laws that protect individuals’ civil rights. He doesn’t need search warrants. He’s free to torture suspects into confessing, although he doesn’t.” In that, Sano joins a long list of fictional detectives struggling to maintain their ethics and humanity in a police state. In the forthcoming book, Sano must simultaneously oversee recovery efforts following an earthquake, and shield the ruler from the extent of the devastation in order to get the necessary work done. Given Rowland’s personal experience (her house in New Orleans was flooded during Hurricane Katrina), writing about another urban catastrophe was, she says, “emotionally intense.”
Rowland’s editor, Hope Dellon, originally lost out on publishing Shinju, but she got a second chance a few years later, when the fourth book in the series, The Concubine’s Tattoo (1998), became available. Dellon’s input shifted the series significantly, and Rowland has been with Minotaur ever since. That book opens with Sano’s arranged marriage to Reiko, a magistrate’s daughter, who goes on to play a significant role in his murder investigation. “I found Reiko such a terrific addition to the series,” Dellon says. “She has access to a world of women that is closed to Sano.”
As with all successful historicals, Rowland’s Sano novels blend painstaking research with characters whose personalities and inner struggles engage the reader. Sustaining that combination over 16 books is no mean feat, and in doing so, Rowland has earned a place alongside the best current practitioners of the subgenre.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer living in New York City.