Select one of the keywords
Red Chrysanthemum    by Laura Joh Rowland order for
Red Chrysanthemum
by Laura Joh Rowland
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

The setting is 17th century feudal Japan. Lord Mori, the powerful daimyo of Suwo and Nagato Provinces has been murdered. When the Shogun's detective corps discovers the body, they discover something even more alarming. Lady Reiko, honorable wife of the venerable Chamberlain Sano Ichiro, is found in the same room with Lord Mori's butchered body. Covered in blood and naked, Lady Reiko seems unable - or unwilling - to explain her presence at the crime scene.

The chief investigator, the Shogun's sosakan-sama, rather than arresting and confining the esteemed Lady Reiko, takes her immediately to her husband. She tells her husband, when confronted by him, that she does not know what happened. She says she cannot - or perhaps will not - fully explain why she was at Lord Mori's except to say that Lord Mori was 'a terrible, evil man.' She cryptically insists, 'I was looking for the boy. I was only trying to help.'

Sano, an unorthodox but effective administrator, struggles to understand his wife's involvement and her bewildering reticence. Moreover, making everything even more complicated for him, Sano knows that he has many political enemies and critics; having already survived four assassination attempts, Sano understands that those who wish to destroy him will do anything - even implicate his wife in a murder - in order to expedite his fall from power and prestige.

Some evidence that points to Reiko's innocence is a blood-stained white chrysanthemum; moreover, beyond the bloodied chrysanthemum, Sano has little exculpatory evidence to work with, and he has begun to have his doubts about his wife's story. However, reports soon begin to surface that Lord Mori may have had many boys delivered to his citadel, though reports also suggest that some of the boys were never seen again. Lord Mori's wife, though, steadfastly implicates Lady Reiko even further by claiming she had been the murdered man's mistress.

So, Sano knows that he must discover the truth about his wife and Lord Mori, and he knows that he must move quickly and carefully in a dangerous, feudal society in which suspicions, duplicity, corruption, and cruelty are widespread. Unless Sano can prove his wife's innocence - which will be difficult if not impossible - both he and his wife will be executed as traitors.

In a densely detailed narrative - filled with different characters' viewpoints and testimonies, much like Rashomon - Laura Joh Rowland has created a spellbinding, tightly structured, and beautiful portrayal of love and loyalty in the midst of murder and malice in 17th century Japan. Stylistically, because of the shifting points of view, this book may not be everyone's cup of tea; the complications of the story can also become exacerbated by the intricacies of Japanese culture, and that may also overwhelm readers who lack patience and commitment to an excellent tale. Nevertheless, with compelling characterizations and a fascinating protagonist, Red Chrysanthemum will have you wholeheartedly agreeing with The Denver Post's book critic who said of another of Rowland's novels, 'Sano may carry a sword and wear a kimono, but you'll immediately recognize him as an ancestor of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.'

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Mystery books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews