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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #36 (September 4, 2007), page 16.
Historical mystery with a dose of disbelief
By Laura Joh Rowland
St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006
Hardcover, 298 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
When my family first watched the movie E.T. together, my retired Army father sat silently through most of the movie until the military broke into Eliot’s house to kidnap the lovable alien. "That would never happen!" he insisted in an unintentionally comic moment. After all, he’d watched E.T. make an interstellar communicator out of a "Speak ‘n’ Spell" and levitate a group of boys on bicycles, among other improbable moments — but the Gestapo-like action of the Army carried him unwillingly past his threshold of disbelief. He was reminded of the fictional nature of the movie and woke from that carefully crafted dream that writers and directors work so hard to induce.
I had similar moments throughout Laura Joh Rowland’s 2006 mystery, Red Chrysanthemum, and it undermined what was otherwise an enjoyable reading experience. Rowland’s series about the 17th-century Japanese sleuth Sano Ichiro began in 1994, and this effort is the 11th title. Reading mysteries and thrillers requires a strong suspension of disbelief, so it’s best not to poke too hard at any plot in this genre. But I often found myself awoken from her fictional dream, which prevented me from enjoying a generally well-constructed and exciting story.
Red Chrysanthemum revolves around the political machinations of Sano Ichiro’s enemies, who have only multiplied in number and power since his ascension to Chamberlain, second-in-command to the all-powerful Shogun. When his pregnant wife Reiko is discovered nude and covered in the blood of Lord Mori, whose mutilated corpse lies beside her, Sano quickly becomes embroiled in an investigation that will determine the life and future of his entire family. He suspects his enemies may be framing his wife, but they are also hatching other schemes, and a host of subplots emerge, from the martial arts lessons of Sano’s chief retainer to an important political prisoner’s escaping from a distant penal island.
Rowland chooses to unfold the murder mystery as a series of testimonial tales from different witnesses to Lord Mori’s death, a device that seems promising but in fact confuses more than it clarifies. Presented as first-person narratives, they are told instead from a close third-person perspective, leading to befuddling moments, as when the thoughts of other characters are shown, or when the tales themselves fall into conflict. Reiko suffers from a memory dysfunction, a device only a notch above the amnesia claimed by soap opera villainesses, so it is never clear which, or how much, of her conflicting tales can be believed. The combination of these elements may twirl the brains of readers more than Rowland intends, and leads to a certain frustration with the plot. Thrillers and mysteries must always mislead as much as reveal, but she carries this maxim a bit too far.
As the plot unfolds, leading here to dead ends and there to further political schemes, the stakes become greater for Sano, who is subject to the breezy whims of the Shogun, himself victim to the willful manipulation of his underlings. Sano struggles to uncover the conspiracy against him even as his certain doom moves ever closer, leading to a showdown swordfight with his enemies — but are they truly to blame?
Here, too, the details are less than credible, such as when Sano wrestles and swordfights for several minutes (and many more pages) before it is revealed that his legs are still asleep from his recent bindings. Settling aside the question of how he is able to swordfight with numb legs, one still wonders whether all his ducking, wrestling, and katana-slashing would surely have returned blood to those limbs. There are other head-shaking moments that undermine an artfully constructed climax that darts back and forth between two unravelling stories.
Thrillers of any time period are not composed of the most believable plots, and readers must surely become accustomed to that. But plenty of writers, from Dashiell Hammett to Elmore Leonard, manage to make their readers swallow the unbelievable without questioning the improbable. It is this failure that makes Red Chrysanthemum merely a good book and not a great one — though it has its memorable moments and displays the plot-weaving talent of a skilled writer, it is unable to transcend its genre to become one of those "don’t-miss" titles. Just as my dad once watched the fictional world of E.T. crumble before his eyes, Rowland’s overly wrinkled and unbelievable plot shatters the dream she has created. Her historical details become as much set decoration as essential elements, dragging the book down to the level of just another historical mystery, its Asian inflections more of a frame than an integral part of the show.