When investigation meets feudal Japanese politics.
Sano Ichirō is a series of mystery novels by Laura Joh Rowland set in 17th century Japan. 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.Seventeen books have been released in the series, with an eighteenth on the way:
The Way of the Traitor (1997)
The Concubine's Tattoo (1998)
The Samurai's Wife (2000)
Black Lotus (2001)
The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria (2002)
The Dragon King's Palace (2003)
The Perfumed Sleeve (2004)
The Assassin's Touch (2005)
Red Chrysanthemum (2006)
The Snow Empress (2007)
The Fire Kimono (2008)
The Cloud Pavilion (2009)
The Rōnin's Mistress (2011)
The Incense Game (2012)
The Shogun's Daughter (2013)
The Iris Fan (December 2014)
Sano Ichirō provides examples of:
Abusive Parents: Yanagisawa's parents in particular, but many parents in the series are terrible parents.
Sano and Reiko, as is typical of the time period. Theirs luckily turns into Happily Married.
Arranged marriages on the whole are standard, particularly nobility. Miai, or a meeting to arrange a marriage, also serves as a plot point in several books such as The Way of the Traitor and The Cloud Pavilion.
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 Bundori and 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; their marriage, rocky as of late, provides a contrast to Sano and Reiko's more stable one.
Bi the Way: Keisho-in likes to help herself to her son's concubines from time to time.
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 have Yoritomo declared next-in-line as shogun.
Decapitation Presentation: The practice of bundori, done in the book of the same name; a head is cleaned, made up, and mounted on a spike for display as a war trophy.
Delivery Guy: Subverted in more than one way by the normally flighty 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 Yanagisawa, and then helps to exile him.
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.
Disguised in Drag: The first time we ever see the Shogun in the series, he's dressed as a woman.
Most of the murder victims; justified as the Shinto religion treats death very seriously and the proper rites must be observed.
Notable as a plot point 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.
Often threatened as a punishment for high ranking officials who fail in their duties to the shogun, and carried out in a few cases, most notably to Yanagisawa and his family in The Perfumed Sleeve.
Played with by Dr. Ito, who was supposed to be exiled for his use of forbidden western medical techniques; the shogun "lessened" his sentence to working in the morgue at Edo Jail. He might as well be an exile.
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 Ichirō, who bears the equally exotic title of the Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
Eye Scream: The first victim in The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria is killed by a hairpin through the eye.
Sano and Reiko have love and mutual respect for each other, although their Arranged Marriage didn't start off well.
Hirata and Midori until Hirata disappears for martial arts training. They seem to be reconciling as of late.
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.
Sano's saving grace on many occasions; his willingness to do what is right usually gives him an advantage when things look bad. Sometimes too close for comfort, though.
Frequently averted or subverted by others, though. Suspects and witnesses are often uncooperative with investigations as they are 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.
Jidai Geki: The time period the novels are set in, specifically the Edo period.
Kicked Upstairs: Sano, after being promoted to Chamberlain following Yanagisawa's exile.
Kid Samurai/Kid Detective: Sano's son, Masahiro, seems to be becoming the former as of The Snow Empress and the latter as of The Cloud Pavilion.
Killed Off for Real: With this many swords and murders going around, it should be no surprise a few regular characters have met their end.
The Perfumed Sleeve: Senior council member Makino, who is the "victim" of the crime.
Red Chrysanthemum: Hoshina, decapitated by Sano after trying to murder him.
The Fire Kimono: Lord Matsudaira, who commits seppuku after being tricked by Yanagisawa.
The Ronin's Mistress: Yoritomo, trying to rescue the shogun from being held hostage.
Kissing Cousins: Lord and Lady Miyagi are cousins in a marriage of convenience because no one would marry into the family.
Knight in Sour Armor: Sano, as the series progresses. While he always knew life at court was dangerous, years of the shogun failing to show any appreciation whatsoever for Sano's loyalty gradually wears away at Sano's idealism.
Law of Inverse Fertility: The shogun is desperate for a son. Naturally, his wife never conceives and his concubines don't seem to do much better.
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.
Loophole Abuse: In The Cloud Pavilion, the shogun's dog keeper hides behind his attack dogs when Sano goes to investigate him; Sano cannot kill the canines or else he will violate the shogun's law on harming dogs. He comes back later with dogs of his own and sets them loose to fight the keeper's animals. After all, the law says nothing about dogs attacking other dogs.
Make Me Wanna Shout: The kiai, or "Death Cry", is 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 Bear/Papa Wolf: Do not mess with Reiko and Sano's kids. They will travel for months just to rescue their son, as they did in The Snow Empress, and will even threaten the shogun's own second-in-command, as Reiko did in The Ronin's Mistress.
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, who is not only the Shogun's lover, but knows exactly how to phrase things to his lord to make himself look good and his competitors look bad.
Mauve Shirt: Detectives Marume and Fukida, who accompany Sano and his family in several novels. Fukida dies in the 1703 earthquake in The Incense Game.
Missing Mom: Reiko was raised solely by her father and has no memory of her mother.
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, able to sense the natural aura of things around him.
Ninja: Aoi in Bundori, serving as a spy for Yanagisawa.
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.
Parental Neglect: Yanagisawa ignores all of his children except for Yoritomo. This includes his only legitimate offspring, Kikuko, in part because she is a girl and in part because she is mentally challenged.
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: Reiko's pregnancies don't slow 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. This appears to be changing as of the end of The Shogun's Daughter.
Rape as Backstory: Oddly, there are more male characters who have suffered through this, as "manly love" among samurai was a common practice in this period in Japan, and masters taking advantage of their students was sadly not uncommon.
Yanagisawa is the most prominent example; the humiliation he went through spurs on his desire to dominate others.
Red Chrysanthemum: Lord Mori marries Lady Mori purely so he can take advantage of her young son.
The Ronin's Mistress: Kira was murdered in revenge for pimping out the son of his retainer; the boy commits suicide, causing his father to vow revenge.
Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Any time Sano notices a particularly lovely woman, he will note her pale skin and dark hair, as he did when he first saw his wife Reiko. This is the standard of beauty in the series, and one that women will go to desperate lengths to achieve and maintain. Older women, most notably the shogun's mother Keisho-in, apply layer after layer of white makeup to their faces and/or dye their hair black to try to maintain a youthful look.
Reasonable Authority Figure: Extremely rare; corruption is rampant in both the Shogun's court and Edo as a whole, as Sano frequently finds out. 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, which is supposed to get him out of Yanagisawa's way and destroy his miai. Instead, he comes back after forcing back some powerful enemies and improves his standing in the Shogun's eyes.
Red Light District: Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, which can be summed up as "prostitutes, courtesans, and more prostitutes."
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. He also assumes Sano's position as the shogun's chief investigator.
Silk Hiding Steel: Reiko, who uses her courtly status to find information for her husband's investigations. And if she runs into trouble, she always has a knife up the sleeve of her kimono, and she knows how to use it.
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, including Yanagisawa himself.
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.
Harume and Danzaemon in The Concubine's Tattoo, who could never be together because of their difference in class.
Succession Crisis: The lack of a direct heir to the Tokugawa line spurs most of the political plotting in the series as factions compete for the shogun's favor. Sano seems to be the only person in Edo Castle who doesn't want this for this son, which naturally, no one else believes.