Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

Read: 18 January, 2008

Emperor Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s concubine has died while carving a tattoo onto her body. The emperor’s lead investigator, Sano Ichiro, must solve the mystery of her death while navigating the delicate balance of the court, the conflicted allegiances of his right-hand-man, and his new wife’s feminist ideals.

The Concubine’s Tattoois genre-fiction; there’s no mistaking it. It makes the unfortunate poor writing choices that most detective mysteries seem to make. If characters are developed at all, it is only in “character blurbs” that are given on introduction and that are supposed to explain all future actions of that character. For example, a few paragraphs are devoted to Lady Uechi Reiko’s (Sano’s wife) upbringing and how, as an only child, she was raised as a male and that’s why she’s such a feminist. Unfortunately for what could have been a very good story, Rowland has never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

This is a recurrent issue in the novel, and not only when characters are first introduced. Whenever a character feels anything, we are told explicitly what it is they feel, regardless of which side of the investigation they are on. In a mystery, this does a great deal to ruin the story because it takes a lot of the guess-work out of the equation. And, of course, since the reader knows what the protagonists can’t know, it forces Rowland to give the detectives “sudden insight” that defies logic.

The novel also offended my sensibilities in many ways. Nearly every “bad” character is either gay or a sexual pervert. It wouldn’t bother me so much if only one antagonist were gay or if some of the good characters were too, but the one-sidedness suggests to me that Rowland equates being gay with a deficiency of character (whether it be outright evil like Lord Yanagisawa or plain effeminate impotence like the emperor). And while I certainly agree with some of the narrator’s ideas about the caste system and the role of women, seeing the author break through into the writing to get on her soapbox and lecture about these topics becomes wearisome after a while.

For my last negative comment of the day, I found the mystery itself to be lacking. There were red-herrings and femme-fatales and all the other staples of the genre, but the total lack of originality, interesting characters, and a compelling plot made the whole novel drag. The big twist ending might have been all right if the characters didn’t go on at length about how unexpected a twist it was. Rowland doesn’t seem to understand that her readers can identify surprising conclusions without being told to be surprised (and then lectured at about how anti-feminist we all are for not anticipating it).

That being said, I loved the setting. Rowland does a great job of exposing the world of her mystery – it’s just a shame that such an interesting world is populated by such cardboard people.

Buy The Concubine’s Tattoo (Sano Ichiro Mysteries) from Amazon to support this blog!

Other books in the Sano Ichiro series:

  1. Shinjū
  2. Bundori
  3. The Way of the Traitor
  4. The Concubine’s Tattoo
  5. The Samurai’s Wife
  6. Black Lotus
  7. The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria
  8. The Dragon King’s Palace
  9. The Perfumed Sleeve
  10. The Assassin’s Touch
  11. The Red Chrysanthemum
  12. The Snow Empress
  13. The Fire Kimono
  14. The Cloud Pavilion
  15. The Ronin’s Mistress

0 thoughts on “Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

  1. Have you ever read The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte, also by Laura Joh Rowland? Very good novel, in which Charlotte Bronte becomes a detective. By any other author, the premise might have become a disaster, but surprisingly the mystery works well there. I’d been curious to see what Rowland’s Japanese mysteries were like.

  2. No, I haven’t. After The Concubine’s Tattoo, I just wanted to stay away from her. I might give this one a try, though.

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