This article is a web original
Marco Cian (Hyogo)
In my last Sano Ichiro article, I said that I would give the series one more chance before deciding whether to give the novels up for good or soldier on. I’m happy to say that not only will I be continuing things, but I’m half-convinced that contemporary reviewers and fan-letters had the same complaints I had with the first two books, since the third Sano Ichiro novel, The Way of the Traitor, has removed the qualities that I found so unappealing in the previous books.
There is still exposition aplenty, but for Traitor Rowland largely confines her exposition towards information that is strictly necessary to understand the plot. And instead of using homosexuality as a cheap shorthand for decadence, Rowland focuses on more subtle signifiers of corruption and vice, such as wheeling and dealing, willful blindness, and prioritizing personal profit over communal duty. As you may have guessed from the title, the mystery Sano solves involves treason and treachery. But as always, Rowland plays with the central theme she sets for her story, and uses it to examine Edo period Japanese society in a far more nuanced manner than most historical fiction writers.
The Way of the Traitor asks the reader to consider just what precisely makes someone a traitor. The obvious answer is “betraying one’s word or cause”, but what if you have two contradictory oaths that you’ve sworn, like the Chinese monk who swore loyalty to the Qing dynasty but also swore to always protect his younger brother, even after said brother joined the Ming rebels? What about the corrupt magistrates who uphold the letter of the law while daily violating its spirit? What about Sano, who seeks to live up to the spirit of justice, while breaking the letter of the law? Each character is confronted with a conflicting loyalty, and forced to choose one while becoming a traitor to the other. And while Sano manages to walk away with his principles mostly intact, once again he finds himself feeling hollow over this moral victory.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Sano Ichiro series is its use of the third-person narration, with a shifting focus between viewpoint characters each chapter. Typically mysteries use either first-person narration or a limited third-person narration, for the simple reason that it allows the reader to learn everything at the same time as the detective. Using multiple viewpoints in a mystery is tricky, because it means that the reader is privy to information that the detective isn’t necessarily, and subsequently that the mystery can get spoiled before the detective figures things out. Admittedly, certain authors like Alfred Bester or Edogawa Ranpo used this to write thrilling howcatchem mysteries instead of whodunnits, but Rowland walks a delicate balance by using a narration style commonly used for howcatchems for whodunnits.
She stumbles on occasion. There are only so many ways that you can have the killer reminisce about the murder without letting slip that they were the one who did it, though Agatha Christie famously managed it once. Rowland is not Christie, but she is skilled enough in her own right to leave the reader guessing even when she accidentally lets slip some clues that Sano himself is unaware of. Overall, The Way of the Traitor is a return to the Sano Ichiro series’ strengths, and I cannot wait to read the next installment.