Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Two Sides of Truth- Shinju

I've always been interested in Japanese culture, history, films and animation. So when I went to my local mystery bookstore a very Japanese cover caught my eye. The novel was called "The Snow Empress". I read the back and it sounded interesting, but was obviously part of a series. I decided to check out the first book "Shinju" and see what it like.

I don't read mystery or thriller novels all that frequently, so I'm not the best critic when it comes to fresh new plot twists or refreshing characters for the genre. What I can say is that I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, briskly paced, and fairly twisty. The main character and I were pretty much on the same page the whole book (I got slightly ahead of him near the end, but he caught up in a few pages).

The story concerns a samurai named Sano Ichiro, in the city of Edo in the year 1689. He recently obtains the position that is roughly the same as a head Lieutenant in the police force. It's a desk job, and Ichiro is more interested in actually stopping crime and upholding justice. He finds himself investigating a double suicide of two lovers, called a shinju. Very quickly Ichiro discovers that this is not a simple case. The two victims were probably murdered and the shinju was definitely staged. As he purses the case, Ichiro finds that many people would be very happy if he stopped investigating. Eventually not only is Ichiro's life on the line, but his honor and more importantly his family's honor is at stake.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Japanese culture knows that honor is one of the top priorities for a samurai. Family honor is even greater. A samurai will do anything to avoid sullying their families name. But what happens when the pursuit of truth forces a samurai to pick between his honor and solving the crime?

Author, Laura Joh Rowland, gave Ichiro an interesting character. He is obsessed with finding the truth and making sure that justice is met. This obsession not only fuels his investigation, but it ends up causing him to do things that would be completely against the code of the samurai. As the book moves forward Ichiro is constantly put into situations where the only way to retain his honor would be to drop the whole case. His obsession fights against it. The need for justice forces his hand with terrible results. This dichotomy creates an internal struggle that nearly destroys Ichiro.

The book houses an intriguing mystery as well as paints a world of Edo during the Takagawa Shogunate. Definitely recommended for anyone who is interested in that period of Japanese history and looking for a good mystery as well.

Can you think of another example of a character who's main good point works against them as well as for them? If you've read "Shinju" what did you think of it?

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