The Red Chrysanthemum
Sano Ichiro, chamberlain to the shōgun, finds himself in the most difficult situation he’s ever faced (and he’s faced some—see the ten other offerings in this series). Sano’s pregnant wife is discovered naked and drenched in blood, vainly trying to revive a nobleman who’s been murdered and mutilated with her dagger. The conclusions to be drawn are obvious, and Sano, with the help of his samurai sidekick, Hirata, must solve the murder and save his wife before they’re both executed.
Rowland has adopted a Rashomon/“In a Grove” technique here, using alternating viewpoints (including the dead man through a medium) to provide several different versions of the same tale. This keeps the reader in the dark and adds to the suspense, but it’s handled a little clumsily. Though it enhances the novel’s historical detail, the exposition involving politics and period Japan makes the plotting slow out of the gate. The main characterization is solid and the protagonists are engaging, but the villain borders on a Japanese version of Snidely Whiplash at times. The story shifts into overdrive in the second half as Sano is saddled with that most stereotypical of plot devices, an impossibly short deadline given by a superior.
Overall, this is a quick and easy read which fans of the series will devour with relish, but uninitiated readers may not find it quite as palatable.