‘Red Chrysanthemum’ by Laura Joh Rowland
I have been reading Rowland’s detective stories featuring Sano Ichiro and set in late 17th century Japan for many years. The stories are great for conjuring up the era and she has a range of interesting characters both allies and opponents of Sano in his role as official detective for the Shogun. At times some seem overly cruel almost as if they have been written too large. Some however, are amoral and political concerns entwine with many of the crimes featured. This being the eighth book in the series, Sano has risen from being a detective to being chamberlain of Japan so even more prone to becoming entangled in political rivalries under the rule of an easily manipulated Shogun. This story revolves around the castration and murder of Lord Mori apparently by Sano’s pregnant wife, Reiko. This level of jeopardy for the couple counteracts the danger which often occurs when a fictional detective is successful and begins to rise through the ranks in that s/he becomes distant from the crimes and faces little risk in investigating them.
Rowland has used the approach of the movie ‘Rashomon’ (1950) with narrations of what occurred from different ‘witnesses’. I worried that this was simply an affectation to give some greater energy to the Rowland’s writing which at times has seemed a little plodding despite the extremity of the crimes she features and the apparent risks her characters face. However, she presents a range of unreliable narrators and this keeps us off balance. If the publisher had not put the first chapter of the next novel in the back of this edition then you could believe that Sano might be executed himself, Japanese justice of the time tending to be all-encompassing. I think the approach works well and I felt there was greater life in this novel than some of its predecessors in the series. The development of other long-standing characters such as Hirata, who has risen to take over Sano’s previous role as chief investigator adds other dimensions though his martial arts tutor comes over as a stereotype.
Rowland never baulks from showing the harshness or injustice of the times she is portraying and as in previous stories we see characters at the pinnacle of society and in its depths. The crimes are not skimped on and this leaves me wondering why I feel something is missing. The politicisation of Sano and his wife to the end of the novel may give a clue and that is he still comes over as being too righteous and maybe we seek some of that amorality we see in other characters appearing in the central ones as well. Maybe I am asking too much. I will certainly continue to read Rowland’s Sano series and hope that with the political intrigues playing an ever larger part the next novel will have that final unidentifiable element that for me is missing and it will prove to be an outstanding rather than simply engaging historical crime novel.
‘To Bring the Light’ by David Drake
This book was clearly inspired by ‘Lest Darkness Fall’ by L. Sprague De Camp which I reviewed recently. It sees Flavia Herosilla a forthright patrician woman from the 4th Century CE being thrown back 1000 years to the foundation of Rome. She has to disentangle legend from actual history in order to assist Romulus and Remus in freeing the village that will become Rome from the overlordship of a neighbouring town, whilst facing chauvinism, sexual harassment and superstitious beliefs which to someone from her time seem irrational. This is an enjoyable book but far too short and I wonder why Drake did not develop the idea at least as far as De Camp did in his novel.
‘Kitchen Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdan
This is a rather ragged autobiography by a chef who has previously published fiction. It goes erratically from culinary experiences of his childhood through a series of failing restaurants primarily in New York. He gives the background on the chaos, drug abuse and simple abuse that go on in kitchens and also tells a bleak story of numerous restaurant failures. At times he diverges into looking at things such as the hierarchy in a restaurant kitchen and the slang used. Despite a brief trip to Japan it is very New York focused and a lot of what he says especially about ethnic groups would not really apply in much of the USA let alone elsewhere in the world. However, he seems to assume that his readership will be familiar with that context which makes it off putting given that from this basis he is trying to show you a culture aside from mainstream America anyway. His stupidity and his arrogance may seem to some readers as edgy and exciting but ultimately you come to loathe him and think he should be far more grateful that he is still alive than he shows in this book. The arrogance becomes difficult to swallow pretty quickly and there is little point in reading an autobiography of someone whose view of the world you cannot respect.