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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #50 (December 13, 2005), page 11.
Legendary judge and his aspiring apprentice crack their first case
The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn
By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
Puffin Books, 1999
Paperback, 213 page, $5.99
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
The authors Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler have written over sixty books of fiction and nonfiction, mostly about world history for young readers, including the popular American Family Album series, so it is no surprise to see them turning their hand to historical fiction. The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn is the first book in their series about Seikei Konoike, the fourteen-year-old son of a merchant living in strictly stratified eighteenth-century Japan. The series follows Seikei’s adventures with Judge Ooka ("The Japanese Sherlock Holmes"), a historical figure who advised Yoshimuni, the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa family. Packed with facts, suspense, and mystery, The Ghost of the Tokaido Inn is sure to draw in young readers who share Seikei’s fascination with samurai, or who simply enjoy historical mysteries.
Even though their class is on the wane, the samurai hold a special place in Seikei’s heart, as he aspires to be as courageous and honorable as those legendary warriors. Because he is not born into a samurai family, however, Seikei can only pretend to be a samurai, until he meets Judge Ooka while travelling with his father to Edo. After revealing his perceptive analytical skills to Judge Ooka, Seikei is quickly apprenticed to the prominent samurai judge, who has made a name for himself not only with his detective skills, but also his compassion. In a culture that accepts torture as a valid method of solving police cases, Ooka believes that such methods will always produce a confession, but rarely lead to the truth.
These characteristics make the judge a perfect role model for Seikei as they investigate the disappearance of a valuable ruby that was en route to the emperor. Although a fellow merchant has been framed for the theft, Seikei quickly realizes that the blame actually lies elsewhere. When the boy brashly speaks up about the ghost he saw the night of the burglary, Judge Ooka follows the clues provided by Seikei’s story, which lead him to a troupe of actors staying near the inn where the ruby was stolen. Seikei infiltrates the group of kabuki actors in order to learn more, and soon finds himself in over his head. Fortunately, Ooka is following his every move, and the pair soon discovers the clever plot behind the theft.
As they follow Seikei’s adventures, readers will learn about Japanese culture and history, including the strict class system and the outlawed Kirishitan religion (hint: its followers wear crosses around their necks). The kabuki troupe offers another way for the Hooblers to educate their readers about this classic Japanese theatrical style and one of its staple productions, The Forty-Seven Ronin. One of the weaknesses of the book, however, is the Hooblers’ relatively flat and straightforward prose, honed no doubt by their years of nonfiction writing. This is not a book that will hook readers with sparkling and memorable images — as with most mystery writing, the draw is the plot, and everything is subordinated to that end. Too often, facts that readers could glean from the context are spelled out, and details typically move the plot along, rather than creating a mood or fleshing out minor characters.
Having said that, the Hooblers’ simpler style will also make this book accessible to younger readers than the indicated "10 and up." And it’s likely that the target audience of children interested in samurai and mysteries will enjoy the fast-paced plot and not even notice the plainer prose. Fourteen-year-old Seikei’s innocent fascination with the samurai, which gets him into trouble as often as it gets him out of it, smacks of a younger boy’s dreams, but it will undoubtedly draw in a younger audience, too.
The Hooblers have written several other mysteries featuring Seikei and Judge Ooka, and young readers who enjoyed The Ghost of the Tokaido Inn will certainly be clamoring for those books as well. For all his youthful innocence and elevated status as the son of a merchant (a wealthy class typically disliked by other Japanese), Seikei is an engaging character with whom many readers will identify. His lack of clichéd preteen boyishness — he is neither mischievous miscreant nor boisterous rebel — will endear him to girls as well. There are some violent scenes in the book, including a beheading, but they are not long dwelled upon, and certainly do not reach the levels of violence common during the book’s historical setting. All in all, The Ghost of the Tokaido Inn is an outstanding book for young mystery and history fanatics, consistent with the excellent track record of Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.