After reading the last two installments in the Hooblers’ samurai detective series, I got hold of the first two. There are still two I have not read, obviously, but based on these four, I can’t seriously recommend the series: the misinformation and errors just outweigh any value that they have as presentations of Edo life or culture. (( I still maintain that the last book, A Samurai Never Fears Death is decent, but it’s clearly the exception. )) The authors’ notes can’t save these books, because even good information is twisted into such blazingly implausible scenarios that no real understanding could survive, and there’s no end to the errors. [Spoilers, of course, because I don’t really want anyone to read these books!]
The first book in the series, Ghost, combines travel, kabuki theater, religion and daimyo politics in a melange of anachronism and implausibilities. Seikei, son of a tea merchant travelling from Osaka to Edo, is a witness in the theft of a precious jewel from an annoying daimyo. Judge Ooka is called in to investigate and is impressed enough with Seikei to use him as an assistant. Seikei manages to infiltrate the kabuki troupe at the center of the mystery, becoming an assistant — Seikei seems to have a preternatural ability to be useful to important people in a wide array of contexts — to the star, a sometime onnagata and scion of a daimyo house that was destroyed as hidden Christians. Yes, “Genji” is a kakure kirishitan ronin who’s become a multi-talented kabuki actor so he can carry out an elaborate vengeful plot culminating in the embarassment and forced seppuku of the daimyo whose aggression caused the downfall of his family. Remember, the series is set in the 1730s: roughly a century too late for Christian daimyo, for daimyo houses to be seized by their neighbors, or for anyone to recognize a crucifix pendant as a sign of Christianity. In spite of the fact that Seikei knows — and Judge Ooka suspects — all of the above before the end, and admit as much to the Shogun who was, embarassingly and necessarily, present at the bloody denouement, they are neither punished nor chastised. Finally, Judge Ooka agrees to adopt Seikei as his heir, much to the relief of his not-sure-what-to-do-with-this-impractical-son merchant family.
There are other problems: the play that the kabuki troupe performs is The 47 Ronin, though open portrayals of the Ako Incident will remain illegal for some time. (( Chushingura itself won’t be written for another decade or more, though other versions did exist. )) Seikei’s father justifies “mak[ing] sacrifices” (5) at both Shinto and Buddhist shrines on the grounds that “All religions may have some truth to them. We must be sure not to offend any of the gods. Particularly since we have been favored with wealth.” (6) Though they also point out that “Most Japanese did the same,” they replace the fascinating realities of Japanese religion with a banal ecumenicism, then fail to explain why Christianity fails to fit. (( “Because the Tokugawas feared that the Kirishitans were plotting a rebellion, they banned the religion and executed any Kirishitans who clung to their faith.” (170, where they also manage to miss Hideyoshi entirely: “After Nobunaga’s death, his ally Ieyasu Tokugawa was named shogun….”) )) In what may be a running gag (see “Lord Ponzu” in the earlier post), there’s a dog named “Inu” (112).
Not to say that they don’t get some interesting things right. There’s a mention of village savings associations (75-6) and the use of placards and decapitated heads of criminals to send deterrent messages (155), and most of what they get wrong, as you can see, is based on a misunderstanding of actual historical phenomena. The second book, In Darkness, Death, also has some surprisingly good details, including eyeglasses from Nagasaki (75), domainal autonomy (155) and the great danger peasants faced if they presented complaints or petitions to domainal authorities outside of the normal chain of command (131, passim). Unfortunately, the core of the book is about ninja, and they use the full-throttle defenders-of-the-weak, harassed-by-samurai, super-secret weapons, sensitive-to-nature, special-wisdom, code-of-honor version of the ninja myth. Worse, it’s a daimyo assassination by his ne’er-do-well heir, a plot that was a hoary cliche in the 17th century, and that’s all I’m going to say about the book.
If I can get hold of the middle two in the series, I will probably read them, for completeness’ sake, but I very much doubt that they’re going to shift my views much at this point. Of the four books I’ve read, only one managed to avoid major errors and absurdities. Since I read that one first, the rest have been particularly disappointing. For a brief shining moment, I thought I’d found something worth recommending; the search continues.