Laura Joh Rowland is the author of fifteen novels in the historical mystery series featuring Sano Ichiro, the seventeenth-century Senior Police Commander and later chamberlain to the Shogun in the district of Edo, present-day Tokyo. Ichiro is a samurai with an intellectual background that often puts him at odds with his colleagues. The series began with the 1994 title, Shinju, and the fifteenth installment, The Ronin’s Mistress, appears this fall.
Rowland’s novels have earned praise from numerous critics. The New York Times Book Review said of her work: “Rowland has a painter’s eye for the minutiae of court life, as well as a politician’s ear for intrigue.” The Washington Post said that her 2008 novel, The Fire Kimono, is “An exercise in pure entertainment . . . [that] takes us to an exotic time and place and overwhelms us with intrigue, romance, adventure, and frequent bloodshed.” A Publishers Weekly critic called her last novel, The Cloud Pavilion, “magnificent,” and another PW reviewer noted of the series in general: “Demonstrating an impressive level of sustained excellence, Rowland’s mysteries set in seventeenth-century Japan form one of the best recent series in the genre.”
Laura, it’s a real pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Perhaps we could start things with a discussion of your connection to this particular crime scene, Ichiro’s seventeenth-century Tokyo.
Well, I don’t live in 17th-18th century Japan, where my books are set. I have been to modern Japan once, although I’ve never lived there, either. I became interested in Japanese history by watching too many samurai movies while I was in college.
What things about this period and place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Tokugawa period Japan has it all—unique culture, fascinating people, great scenery. Edo (now known as Tokyo) had everything that a detective series needs: a big population, social and political tensions, a cruel justice system, lots of potential for interesting crime.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
My series started with the location. The period and culture defined what the characters and stories could be. After a few books, my stories are more character-driven. I’m tailoring the plots for my characters and letting them run with the ball.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I always look to the location and the research for inspiration. Historical atmosphere is a big part of my series. I’m thrilled whenever I can use a real historical detail or event in a scene or plot. The Snow Empress is set in Hokkaido and deals with relations between the Japanese ruling class and the indigenous people. The Fire Kimono is centered around the Great Fire of 1657 that killed over 100,000 people and destroyed most of Edo.
How does Ichiro interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your Sano Ichiro?
My protagonist, the samurai Sano Ichiro, starts out as a lowly police detective who’s sneaked into government officialdom through the back door. He rises to become the chamberlain, the shogun’s second-in-command. But he’ll always be an outsider because his dedication to seeking the truth and administering justice conflicts with the samurai code of honor that puts loyalty to superiors first. He’s always in trouble.
My books are published in many countries, except Japan. I’ve been told that Japanese publishers don’t like books about Japan that are written by foreigners; they think we make too many mistakes. They’re probably right.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
My first book, Shinju, was reviewed in the New York Times. The reviewer was an academic type who was delighted to point out my mistakes. One of them was that I had put a keep inside Edo Castle. The keep had burned down before the year when my novel is set. I knew that, but I put the keep in anyway because I liked it and this is fiction, which makes all things possible, including resurrection of burned buildings. The reviewer likened my mistake to Japanese movies where the samurai are wearing watches. That was one of the most entertaining reviews I’ve ever gotten.
Of the Ichiro novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
When I started writing my series, I was greatly influenced by P. D. James, Elizabeth George, and Martin Cruz Smith, whose books have such wonderful atmosphere and texture. I aimed for that kind of unity between place and plot. Lately I’m impressed by David Liss, Tana French, and Carol Goodman.
What’s next for Ichiro?
He’s starring in my next book, The Ronin’s Mistress, which will be published this September. It’s based on the true, famous story of the 47 ronin who took revenge on the man they blamed for their master’s death. The incident created an uproar at the time. There are still mysteries surrounding it, and Sano solves them.
Laura, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information about Laura Joh Rowland, visit her homepage.