Written by Laura Joh Rowland
Published by St. Martin’s
The Perfumed Sleeve brings back Honorable Detective Sano, involved in another murder investigation for his Emperor. An advisor to the shogun has been found dead, apparently in his sleep, but Sano decides it is murder, and seemingly by a woman, as a torn, perfumed kimono sleeve was found wadded up with the bedclothes. In a world where murder is a frequent political tool, and where two factions are vying to the death for the shogun’s favor, Sano must treat carefully on his path to truth.
The focus of this book is rarely on the murder or the investigation, but rather on the power struggle between the shogun’s cousin, Lord Matsudaira, and his second-in-command/lover, Yanagisawa. Both Matsudaira and Yanagisawa are attempting to claim Sano as their pawn in this game of thrones, and Sano wants none of it, for reasons born equally of ethics and self-preservation.
As with all of Rowland’s previous efforts in this series of Sano Ichiro, the author evokes the world of Edo in 1694 beautifully and with fine detail. Sano and his wife Keiko are likable and capable, though Sano’s bushido makes his personality still something of a cipher to readers. It is too bad then that Rowland’s series has contained progressively more sexual perversion and depravity over the past few books. Every book now contains some element of pedophilia, rape, incest, violent fetishes, prostitution, or just plain sex as torture device. For example, there are two men in this book who groom a young boy to become a lover for the shogun, regardless of the boy’s age and own sexual preference. They are hardly meant to be heroes, but only the main characters seem mainly immune to the lure of the dark side of sexuality. While eroticism as pain was a part of Japanese history and a political tool, it does not need to be so frequent an element of a book or series. Would less sexual violence and perversion really be anachronistic? Is it really so hard to be sane in Edo/Tokyo? If so, it explains Godzilla’s apparent need to crush the city.
Additionally, the mechanism for the murder was simply a little weak and contrived. The suspects are basically non-entities, especially the widow. There was too much padding in this one; everything was a red herring, because the truth was just too outlandish and improbable to leave many clues for Sano to follow, necessitating a secondary political plot and murder and lots of running around looking for evidence to fill out the necessary length. It does, however, make one actually rather glad that the dildo thing was never explained. We shall speak no more of that. Everyone in Nippon seems to be a prostitute or grooming one, and the murder itself, ostensibly the point of the book, takes a definite back seat to the window-dressing of period Japan and the manipulations of Yanagisawa and his crazy wife.
If you’re looking for period Japanese detail and a good mystery, then look no further, but be warned that this is no cozy English mystery. If you feel you already have enough darkness in your head, then give this one a pass, but fans of Japan and historical mysteries will want to read this one despite the warnings. It is truly a shame that Rowland’s book is so disturbed, as the Japanese cultural, social, and historical detail is beautifully done and immersive, not to mention in most respects plain-old well-written. Perhaps Rowland’s next book will have more of the restraint her characters lack.