Sano Ichiro

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When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.

Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan, revolving around the titular character. Sano Ichirō is a dedicated and honorable Samurai from humble origins who has risen to become the Shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. As he works his way through these mysteries, he must also navigate the tricky intricacies of the shogun's court, an issue compounded by the weak-willed Shogun Tokugawa and his manipulative Chamberlain, Yanagisawa, who sees Sano as a threat to his own considerable power. Because of his status, each of the mysteries in the books link to some type of court intrigue, usually high-ranking members or relatives of the shogun, and often Sano finds his reputation, if not his life, on the line if he fails in solving them.

Sano has allies of his own, however. Most notable are his wife Reiko, a keen Amateur Sleuth and martial artist who uses her high status to find clues within the social circles of women and other places Sano cannot go without attracting notice, Hirata, Sano's loyal retainer who has developed special martial arts techniques to help him in his work, and Dr. Ito, a doctor "exiled" to Edo Jail with an interest in forbidden western medicine.

While Sano and his family and friends are fictional, many of the characters in the book, particularly the shogun and members of his court, are based on real people, though Rowland does deviate from historical fact later in the series in the interest of plot. Some of the cases deal with supernatural or legendary elements as well, including ghosts. Court debauchery abounds as well, with courtesans and fetishes playing a large role in many mysteries.

As of September 2011, fifteen books have been released in the series:

  1. Shinjū (1994)
  2. Bundori (1996)
  3. The Way of the Traitor (1997)
  4. The Concubine's Tattoo (1998)
  5. The Samurai's Wife (2000)
  6. Black Lotus (2001)
  7. The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (2002)
  8. The Dragon King's Palace (2003)
  9. The Perfumed Sleeve (2004)
  10. The Assassin's Touch (2005)
  11. Red Chrysanthemum (2006)
  12. The Snow Empress (2007)
  13. The Fire Kimono (2008)
  14. The Cloud Pavilion (2009)
  15. The Rōnin's Mistress (2011)
Tropes used in Sano Ichiro include:
  • Acid Pool: Hoshina, in Red Chrysanthemum, tries to murder Sano in a pool of lye. Sano manages to take him out instead.
  • Action Girl: Reiko.
  • The Atoner: Sano's bodyguard Hirata in The Way of the Traitor once froze during an arrest of some street thugs when he was a Doshin (beat cop). Because of this he is determined to redeem himself and is pathetically disappointed when Sano takes on dangers he would prefer to take on.
  • Arranged Marriage: Sano and Reiko, as is typical of the time period.
    • Averted by Midori and Hirata, who actually fell in love with each other before they were married.
  • Ascended Extra: Midori first appeared as a thirteen-year-old girl who just happened to be the little sister of the murder victim in Shinjū. Later became a regular character as she became romantically involved with Hirata and became Reiko's friend.
  • Bad Cop, Incompetent Cop: Many of the Edo city police, especially after Hoshina is put in charge. Sano cleans things up some, but most of the truly honest investigators remain only in his inner circle.
  • Bastard Boyfriend: Yanagisawa, displayed most strongly in The Concubine's Tattoo. He often re-enacts the humiliation he experienced while he slept his way to the top. The trait is lessened greatly after his love affair with Hoshina collapses, when he realizes others are using his affection to gain power in a similar fashion.
  • Batman Gambit: Yanagisawa often plans these, so even if Sano finds the truth it sets him back or causes him even more trouble. Thanks to Sano's persistence for justice, he almost always manages to subvert them, or at least make them to his advantage as well.
  • Beta Couple: Hirata and Midori.
  • By-The-Book Cop: Sano, who follows the rules of Bushido strictly.
  • Casting Couch: Yanagisawa got the job as Chamberlain by becoming the Shogun's lover. He encourages his son Yoritomo to employ the same method in an attempt to Yoritomo declared next-in-line as shogun.
  • Christmas Cake: Lady Yanagisawa before her marriage. Unfortunately for her, it wasn't out of love but because she was a Tokugawa cousin.
    • The fate of the concubine Ichiteru after she turns 30 and is sent away from court.
  • Clueless Deputy: Hirata starts out this way, but gets much better as the series goes on until his investigative skills rival Sano's.
  • The Coroner: Dr. Ito, who helps Sano by secretly performing illegal autopsies on the victims. Often has the help of his Silent Partner, the eta Mura.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The most severe form of execution available to the Shogun, in which the guilty party is buried in the ground up to his neck and has his head sawed off.
  • Cult: Black Lotus, investigated in the book of the same name.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The fate of many of the criminals Sano catches after they are executed.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: The shogun's court is a dangerous place for those who aren't politically savvy, and even for those who are half the time.
    • The emperor's court in The Samurai's Wife is about as bad with its internal struggles. The only difference is they wield almost mo power over the country.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Lady Mori, revenging her son against his stepfather for raping him as a child in Red Chrysanthemum.
  • Decapitation Presentation: The practice of bundori, done in the book of the same name.
  • Delivery Guy: Subverted in more than one way by Keisho-in, who in a rare turn of events is the only one who is collected and confident when Midori goes into labor, coaching the younger woman through the birth of her first child.
  • Dirty Cop: Hoshina, especially after he becomes the lover of, and then helps to exile Yanagisawa.
  • Dirty Old Man: There's at least one in every book. The shogun is the most prominent example of the reoccurring characters if you're an adolescent boy.
  • Dramatic Irony: In The Way of the Traitor Sano ponders thuswise: Sano envisioned a day when barbarians would freely walk the streets of Japan's cities and his descendants travel to distant lands. Japanese and barbarians would speak one another's languages, share ideas. His adventurous spirit thrilled to the possibility. But Sano also could imagine foreign warships attacking Japan; the boom of gunfire rocking sea and land, cities burning; the death of his people in wars more destructive then ever before. Sano didn't know which vision would come to pass but he realized how vulnerable Japan was, how fragile the culture that nurtured him. Even Bushido might not survive the onslaught of foreign influence. Ironically both visions come true.
    • More ironically he thinks that while on an inspection of the city of Nagasaki.
  • Due to the Dead: Most of the murder victims; justified as the Shinto religion treats death very seriously and the proper rites must be observed.
    • Notable in The Fire Kimono. The unknown victim was buried in an unmarked grave by one of the local priests out of kindness. That priest is later found as an old man and identifies the murderers.
  • Evil Chancellor: Chamberlain Yanagisawa and, for a time, Lord Matsudaira
  • Extreme Doormat: The Shogun. When he actually tries to take things into his own hands on a couple of occasions, he makes things worse. He subverts this temporarily in The Fire Kimono when he gets fed up with Lord Matsudaira's jealous and condescending attitude.
  • The Exotic Detective: Sano himself.
  • Eye Scream: The first victim in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria is killed by a hairpin through the eye.
  • Finally Found the Body: The victim of The Fire Kimono, courtesy of a wind storm toppling a tree.
  • Girl in the Tower: Reiko, Midori, Keisho-in, and Lady Yanagisawa in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Takeda is known both for his conviction rate and severe sentences. In some ways he is a subversion for he is a Knight Templar while the other judges on his tribunal are just slimy and when something appeals to his sense of rightness-like Hirata's devotion-he can be moved.
  • Heir Club for Men: The shogun has no heir. His concubines don't conceive (of course he's much more into boys anyway), his wife is too old. A slew of cousins and courtiers try to fill in the blank, unless and until there's a son.
  • Heroic BSOD: Sano has a minor meltdown in The Pillow Book Of Lady Wisteria after one too many death threat in reward for loyalty and competence.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Hirata in The Perfumed Sleeve, where he is permanently lamed protecting Sano from a deathblow.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Lady Wisteria is a famous first-class courtesan.
  • Historical Domain Character: Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Chamberlain Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, and Keisho-in, mother of the Shogun. Others pop in occasionally.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Yanagisawa. Fact indicates the real one was not quite as scheming or nasty as the one in the books, and he was likely little more than a yes man to Tokugawa.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Okaru, the titular character of The Rōnin's Mistress.
  • Honor Before Reason: Sano's saving grace on many occasions. Sometimes too close for comfort, though.
    • This is often the reason people cite for being uncooperative with investigations as well, being more concerned for their own, or their lord's, honor than they are for actually catching a murderer. Sano knows this, and it causes him endless grief.
  • Interdisciplinary Sleuth: Sano and most of his circle of investigators are also Samurai.
  • Jidai Geki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: Subverted. Sano is reasonably good with a sword. But in the first novel he defeats an assassin who is a Master Swordsman because of his training with a jitte (nightstick basically).
  • Kicked Upstairs: Sano, after being promoted to Chamberlain following Yanagisawa's exile.
  • Kid Samurai: Sano's son, Masahiro, seems to be becoming this.
  • Like Is, Like, a Comma: A variant. The shogun uses "ahh" in this way in almost every bit of his dialogue. No other character has a similar speech pattern.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: The kiai, or "Death Cry", used as the murder method in The Samurai's Wife.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The victim in The Fire Kimono, whose death was originally blamed on the Great Long-Sleeves Kimono Fire that killed thousands.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: In The Concubine's Tattoo, one of the shogun's concubine's manages to conceive. It's actually an eta's son.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Chamberlain Yanagisawa
  • Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who accompany Sano and his family in several novels.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Midori doesn't reveal her pregnancy to anyone other than Hirata until after they are married.
  • Nature Hero: Hirata becomes one in The Snow Empress.
  • Ninja: Aoi, in Bundori.
  • Non-Promotion: Happened for a long time before Yanagisawa's exile, as the shogun gave Sano more to do and relied on him more in governing Japan, but neither promoted him nor gave him much credit for his work.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The emperor's cousin Momozono isn't anywhere near as stupid as his disabilities make him sound. He is genuinely disabled, though.
  • Out with a Bang: Makino in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Parental Incest: The lover the Dragon King is pining for? It's his mother.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: The Shogun, who bars anyone from harming a dog because he was born in the Year of the Dog. He is disturbingly quick, however, to order Off with His Head to any person he even remotely suspects of being his enemy.
  • Pregnant Badass: Neither of Reiko's pregnancies slows her down as far as helping in investigations.
  • Public Execution: Constantly, and often unfairly given. One of these also plays host to a major scene at the end of The Fire Kimono.
  • Puppy Love: Taeko has a huge crush on Masahiro. He doesn't seem to reciprocate, but they are playmates.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Extremely rare. Reiko's father Magistrate Ueda is one of Edo's few honest and powerful men outside the main protagonists.
  • Reassignment Backfire: Sano's trip to Nagasaki in The Way of the Traitor.
  • Red Light District: Yoshiwara.
  • Ronin: Sano started out as one before solving his first case in Shinjū.
  • Rashomon Plot: Done deliberately in Red Chrysanthemum.
  • Screaming Birth: Midori's delivery of her first child in The Dragon King's Palace.
  • Seppuku: Some samurai are given this option instead of Off with His Head. Lord Matsudaira also takes this way out after realizing he and Sano have been tricked by Yanagisawa.
  • Sex Equals Love: Lady Yanagisawa desperately holds to this belief when her husband beds her as a reward in The Perfumed Sleeve.
  • Sidekick Graduations Stick: Hirata started out as Sano's sidekick. After he was severely injured protecting Sano and started special martial arts training to compensate for his injuries, he now acts independently from Sano as needed.
  • Someone Has to Die: In The Concubine's Tattoo, Shichisaburo takes the blame for Yanagisawa's failed plot against the Shogun's mother and is executed, to the stunned disbelief of all assembled, especially Yanagisawa himself.
  • The Swashbuckler: Jan Spaen, director of the Dutch traders is a partial subversion. He has the attitude you would expect of Errol Flynn or Kirk Douglas being fearless, swaggering and enterprising. He also tortures a prisoner to death for no apparent reason (other then it is the seventeenth century) and perhaps more shockingly, blackmails a former companion into leaving a wife he loves and a dying son to be his medic by threatening to expose that he was a manslayer in a Bar Brawl long gone by
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lady Yanagisawa idolizes Reiko and is fairly obsessed with the woman. She also wants to kill her.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: The original mystery that leads to Sano's career with the Shogun. It was actually made to look like a lovers' suicide by the murderer.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Taeko was conceived before Hirata and Midori were even engaged. Oops.
  • Those Two Guys: Detectives Marume and Fukida.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Reiko and Midori.
  • Touch of Death: The murder method used in The Assassin's Touch.
  • Waif Fu: Reiko is an accomplished martial artist, but she's also a tiny woman.
  • Warrior Poet: Sano. He is after all a Samurai, it goes without saying. And much is made of the attitude of his values toward crime-fighting. Because of this Sano looks different from an American detective. Which is not to say he is a fair picture of a Tokagawa warrior (the reader can judge). Simply that he is obviously not American in his attitudes.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Yoritomo towards Yanagisawa. Oddly, Yanagisawa actually feels rather affectionately towards him as well, but maintains emotional distance out of caution.
  • Woman Scorned: Lady Wisteria herself, who frames several former clients she has come to loathe in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria.
  • You Killed My Son: This is the motive behind more than one murder.
    • Yanagisawa vows revenge against Sano for his son's death.