Monday, December 19, 2011

The Concubine's Tattoo (Laura Joh Rowland)

Ever have those books that you want to read but never seem to have the time to buy? For Christmas, one of my best friends Kaoko gave me Laura Joh Rowland's The Concubine's Tattoo. It's been on my TBR list since forever since I've always been partial to books set in Asia or have Asian elements in them. With the additional mystery element, I was really eager to read this. But since I kept seeing it around everywhere, it was one of those books that I always assumed I would buy eventually, no rush. Thankfully, Kaoko came to the rescue.

The Concubine's Tattoo isn't the first of the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th-century Edo, Japan, but it's the first one to feature Sano as a married man. The opening scenes is of the samurai investigator marrying Ueda Reiko, the magistrate's daughter. Unfortunately, their marriage celebration is interrupted by the death of Lady Harume, who appears to have been poisoned after she makes a tattoo on a place only a lover is bound to see. Not exactly the most auspicious of starts to a marriage. This particular murder investigation takes Sano and his retainer Hirata into the inner chambers of the emperor's palace, and makes them deal with spurned lovers, jealous rivals, and a whole slew of political maneuverings.

One of the major draws for me is how the mystery takes place around a Japanese court. (Aside: I enjoy reading mysteries that take place in exotic locales. This year, I've read mysteries that occurred in India, China, and Russia, to name a few.) I thought Ms Rowland was able to transport me there and make me feel as if I am privy to what goes on there. Secondary characters and even suspects are fleshed out in brief yet bold sketches. Not everything is told from Sano's point-of-view, and I thought the additional perspectives made this a richer and more detailed reading experience.

Because sosakan Sano belongs to the samurai class, he has certain values and beliefs that hinder the smooth flow of his investigations. For example, handling corpses is a job for outcasts so you can't have post-mortem examinations left and right. Then there is of course the bushido code that Sano tries to live by, which prevent him from questioning his more prominent suspects outright. I like how Ms Rowland cleverly utilizes these in her book, making Sano Ichiro quite different from other detectives that I have read.

Now at the risk of sounding like a prude, I will have to admit: the sexual activity in this book took me by surprise. I know. The mystery involves the emperor's concubines, plus it had a newly-wedded couple in it, so I had to expect it, right? Uh, not quite. It was a little more than I had expected to read, especially given that this as my initiation into the series. Whether the rest of the books are as sexually provocative or not remains to be seen. Still, my curiosity has already been piqued by The Concubine's Tattoo . As a detective, Sano Ichiro faces intriguing dilemmas that I haven't encountered in other mysteries, and I'm eager to see what other adventures he and his crew will have at court.

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