The Incense Game by Laura Joh Rowland

the-incense-gameI recently finished book sixteen in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mysteries Series, The Incense Game. I know I’m nearing the end of the series, there are only two more books, and while all good things must come to an end, I hate to see it actually happen.

I started several years ago with book ten, The Assassin’s Touch, and made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go back to the beginning of a series that I really didn’t have time for. Even though book ten read like a stand-alone novel, I fell in love with Sano and the cast of characters. Combined with my love of all things Japanese, I immediately broke my promise, started reading from book one, and now own all of them except for the final book.

Most of the mysteries I have read are because I stumbled upon them in a library where they had been mislabeled as regular fiction. Book ten of Ms. Rowland’s series was on the new book shelf, and the picture of a Japanese woman with a fabulous dragon tattoo drew me in. As someone who usually bypasses the shelves of mysteries, I was hooked.

All the books are rich with history from the era of the shoguns. Ms. Rowland seamlessly blends historical figures and events with fictional ones to create believable storylines. She adds a dash of the mystical martial arts to ramp up the tale without coming across like a poorly dubbed foreign film.

Sano is a realistic hero because he suffers trials and tribulations as well as successes. Of course for Sano, either situation constantly places him in a good light with his allies and a bad one with his enemies. The tension and struggle is real, and often frustrating, as the reader will want Sano to act in such a way that looks like it would resolve all his problems. However, he is bound by obedience to bushido which governs his every move.

There is always a bad person behind the mysteries Sano investigates, but the best antagonist throughout the novels has been Yanagisawa who, on top of everything else Sano endures, is constantly trying to get rid of him by whatever means necessary. No scheme is too diabolical for Sano’s archenemy including attempts on the life of Sano’s wife and children.

The cast of peripheral characters—Sano’s wife, children, friends, retainers, the Shogun—add to the depth of storytelling I have come to love from Ms. Rowland. The one character I hated to see go by the wayside was a love interest for Sano in an earlier novel. I would have liked to have seen Aoi, a beautiful woman trained in the ninja arts, to make a reappearance in a later book. This worthy character definitely would have heated things up especially if she returned after Sano married.

If you haven’t read Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mystery Series, I strongly suggest you do. Take it from someone who is extremely picky about her mysteries, you won’t be disappointed.

It’s a Mystery to Me

its-a-mystery-to-meMy first encounter with Agatha Christie was her novel, Murder on the Orient Express, which I read for one of my book clubs. I’m not usually a reader of mysteries unless by accident. John MacLachlan Gray’s two Edmund Whitty novels and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series are among those happy accidents. Of course, there are the three Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels my mother gave me for Christmas which prompted the purchase of the complete stories, so perhaps I occasionally, intentionally read a mystery.

With that being said, I approached Murder on the Orient Express with a titch of bias. I expected Agatha Christie’s writing to meet the standard set by the above-mentioned authors. In Mrs. Christie’s defense, I have read only one of her novels, and by the time I wrote this blog post, I also completed the short story, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Charming but dull was the phrase that continually came to mind. Hercule Poirot didn’t do anything for me as a protagonist except manage to be cute and annoying at the same time and fusty even in the era for which he was created. The peripheral characters weren’t memorable; I had to keep re-reading their bios at the beginning to keep them straight. Only one of them had an interesting twist, and for all Poirot’s intelligence, how he managed to miss it until the end didn’t lend very much credibility to his detective skills.

I kept comparing Poirot to Lord Peter, who is more aware of his eccentricities, Chamberlain Sano, who accepts bad situations with great humility and presses on, and Edmund Whitty, who is a likeable loser right from the start. They are more believable as protagonists and detectives, more human in character and actions.

Then there was the prejudice of the author that comes through in the way she handled foreigners and the lower classes. Some of the things Mrs. Christie wrote would be considered intolerable today and were clearly the general opinion of her class. Dorothy L. Sayer’s tiptoed in this direction occasionally, but in my opinion, with much less offense. However, in the hands of someone like John MacLachlan Gray, these types of comments read harshly yet brilliantly. Perhaps this is because he’s writing an historical mystery, and I can trust he’s not wielding them for shock value.

As for the conclusion that everyone was guilty, I couldn’t accept that as a solution. Too many people who know the details of a secret are bound to screw it up without the help of Mother Nature. If not for the snowstorm, am I to believe all the suspects would have succeeded with their scheme? And perhaps I’ve watched too much Law & Order and Criminal Minds to accept that the head of the railway line, with Poirot’s apparent blessing, has the authority to let everyone off the hook because the man they killed was a kidnapper and murderer. Maybe I just wasn’t interested in debating the issue of justice in a book that in all other ways was simple and unengaging.

I probably wouldn’t have picked up another Agatha Christie book if it weren’t for the fact that my other book club is also doing Agatha Christie. My next purposeful attempt at a mystery will also be for book club. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles is on the schedule. I’ll be interested to see how he measures up to the other mystery writers.

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