“Bundori is terrific. . . . So good you won’t want to put it down, even to get off a plane. . . . [Laura Joh] Rowland hits her stride as a writer who can deal equally well with the pacing of plot and the nuances of character development. . . . Rowland clearly knows how to build suspense and action, a talent that she demonstrates with great skill.”—New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Bundori is one of those mysteries in which the itch to find out whodunit recedes before the pleasure of prowling through a different world.”—Washington Post Book World
“Sano may carry a sword and wear a kimono, but you’ll immediately recognize him as an ancestor of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.”—Denver Post
“A colorful pictorial style that conveys . . . excitement and . . . danger.”—The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In the vast, deep pond at Edo Castle’s martial arts training ground, Sano Ichirō trod water furiously, trying to stay afloat. The two swords and full suit of armor he wore—tunic and shoulder flaps made of leather and metal plates, chain-mail arm shields, metal leg guards, helmet, and mask—threatened to drag him to the bottom. In his left hand he held a bow; in the right, an arrow. His lungs heaved with the effort of keeping these and his head above the water. Around him bobbed other samurai, fellow retainers of the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, attending this morning’s training session to practice the skills they would need in case they ever had to make war in a river, a lake, or at sea. At the pond’s other end, more men fought a mock battle on horseback. Their movements churned the pond. A big wave washed over Sano’s head. Water, foul with mud and horse droppings, gurgled into his helmet and mask. He gasped, spat, and barely managed to gulp a breath of air before the next wave hit him.
“You, there!” the sensei yelled from the bank of the pond. A long pole rapped sharply upon Sano’s helmet. “Body straight, legs down. And keep that arrow dry! Wet feathers don’t fly straight!”
Mustering his strength, Sano gamely tried to follow the orders. His legs ached from executing the circular kicks necessary for maintaining an upright position. His left arm, recently wounded in a sword fight, throbbed; the other arm had gone numb. Each painful breath felt like his last. And he was freezing. The uncertain spring weather hadn’t warmed away the pond’s winter iciness. How much longer would this torture last? To take his mind off his physical distress, he squinted upward at his surroundings.
Man-shaped straw archery targets dotted the grassy space beside the pond. To Sano’s right loomed the dark green pines of the Fukiage, the forested park that occupied the castle’s western grounds and surrounded the training area. On his left, he could see the stands of the racecourse, from which came shouts, cheers, and hoofbeats. In the distance directly ahead of him rose the high stone wall that surrounded the inner castle precincts, where the shogun, his family, and his closest associates lived and worked in luxurious palaces.
Sano kicked harder to raise himself an infinitesimal distance higher above water level. The brilliant sunlight made dazzling jewels of the droplets that sprayed his eyes. He blinked them away and tilted his head back to look up at the castle keep: five splendid stories of whitewashed walls and multiple gleaming tiled roofs and gables that soared against the blue sky. A visible symbol of the complete and overwhelming Tokugawa military power, Edo Castle filled Sano with awe. After two months of living within its walls, he still couldn’t believe that it was home to him now. Even less could he believe in the fantastic series of events that had brought him here.
The son of a rōnin—a masterless samurai—he’d earned his living as an instructor in his father’s martial arts academy, supplementing his family’s meager income by teaching reading and writing to young boys. Then, just three months ago, through family connections, he’d attained the position of yoriki, one of Edo’s fifty senior police commanders. He’d lost that position, suffered disgrace, dishonor, and physical agony, solved a puzzling murder case, saved the shogun’s life—and ended up as Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s sōsakan-sama: Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People.
The appointment was an undreamed-of honor, but Sano’s move to the castle had created an enormous upheaval in his life. Cut off from everything and everyone he knew, he’d found himself adrift in a strange landscape filled with unfamiliar faces, swamped by new and confusing regulations and rituals. The training pond wasn’t the only place where he had to struggle to keep his head above water. But the changes in his life hadn’t stopped there. His father, whose health had been poor for many years, had died just fifteen days after Sano had left his family’s house. With a sorrow still fresh and raw, Sano remembered his father’s passing.
Kneeling before his father’s bed, he’d pressed the old man’s withered hand to his chest. Through the grief that swelled his throat, he tried to express the love and esteem he felt for his father, but the latter had shaken his head, demanding silence. “My son … promise …” The cracked voice faded to a whisper, and Sano leaned closer to hear. “Promise me that … you will serve your master well. Be the living embodiment … of Bushido.…”
Bushido: the Way of the Warrior. The strict code of duty, honor, and obedience that defined a samurai’s behavior, during battle and in peacetime, which he mastered not once and for all, but through confronting the innumerable challenges it presented throughout his life.
“Yes, Father, I promise,” Sano said. At whatever cost to himself, he would strive to mold his independent, unruly spirit to Bushido’s tenets. This deathbed promise was the most serious obligation he’d ever owed his father; it must be fulfilled. “Please rest now.”
With another shake of his head, his father continued. “The aim of a samurai … is to perform some great deed of bravery or loyalty that …” He took several slow, painful breaths. “That will astonish both friend and foe alike, make his lord regret his death, and …” A coughing spell stopped him.
“And leave behind a great name to be remembered for generations to come,” Sano finished for him. The lesson was one of the many aspects of Bushido that his father had taught him in childhood, indoctrinating him with this philosophy, which had evolved over the course of six hundred years.
Sano gripped his father’s hand tighter, as if to physically keep death from claiming him. Tears stung his eyes. He knew it grieved his father that the miraculous deed he’d already performed for the shogun must remain forever a secret. “Father, I promise I will secure our family’s name a place of honor in history,” he said.
Satisfied, his father relaxed and closed his eyes. Shortly afterward, he lapsed into the final throes of death.
Sano felt as though his father’s passing had removed the foundation of his life, his link with his heritage, the font from which his strength and courage flowed, and the inner compass that guided him. Bereft, unsure of himself, he longed for his father’s presence. Still, the promises he’d made hadn’t seemed rash or extravagant then. As sōsakan, he would have countless opportunities to distinguish himself.
Now, however, Sano despaired of ever fulfilling the promise. For the entire two months since his arrival at Edo Castle, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi had completely ignored him. Sano had seen his new master only from a distance during formal ceremonies. Instead of solving problems of vital national importance, he was now a clerk in the castle’s historical archives. He spent his excess time and energy on the one avenue of Bushido open to him: martial arts training for a war that might not come in his lifetime. He seemed destined to become one of the government’s countless bureaucrats, who did trivial work in exchange for generous stipends—a parasite, fattening off the Tokugawa wealth.
“Ready! Take aim!”
The sensei’s voice interrupted Sano’s thoughts. At last the exercise was nearing its end. Exhausted, Sano aligned his body with one of the straw targets. His heart hammered in protest inside his chest. His armor and weapons now weighed as much as the Great Buddha statue of Kamakura. Every part of his body ached; his stomach churned, sickened from overexertion. He raised his bow and fitted the arrow to it. Despite his frantic kicks, his head sank below the water. Blindly he aimed.
Sano let his arrow fly. Without looking to see where it landed, he swam to shore. He no longer had the strength to care how well he’d performed the exercise. He couldn’t determine how he might become the ideal samurai and confer everlasting honor upon his family name. All he wanted to do was rest, on dry land. Dripping and shivering, he heaved himself onto the bank, where he lay motionless on his back, eyes closed. He was dimly aware of the men around him, some resting, others talking while they removed their armor. The sunlight warmed him. Then he heard footsteps approaching. Someone stood at his feet, blocking the sun. Removing his mask, Sano raised his head, expecting to see the attendant who helped him in and out of his armor.
“nstead he saw two of the shogun’s senior officials. Dressed in colorful flowing silk robes, oiled hair tied in sleek looped knots, crowns freshly shaven, they gazed down at him in mild disdain.
“Sōsakan-sama?” one of them said.
Sano struggled to his feet. “Yes?” Water ran out of his helmet and armor. He bowed, feeling uncouth beside their elegance.
“The shogun wishes your presence at once, in the No theater,” the other official said.
Sano’s heart leapt. After two months of silence, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi wanted to see him! “Did he say why?” he asked eagerly. Already yanking at the fastenings of his armor, he beckoned the attendant to come and assist him.
Both officials shook their heads gravely, bowed, then turned and walked away.
With the attendant’s help, Sano shed his armor. In the dressing shed he removed his wet garments, rinsed in clean water, and wiped himself with a towel. He donned his everyday clothing: long, full black trousers, a dark red kimono stamped in gold with the triple-hollyhock-leaf Tokugawa crest, and a black surcoat bearing his own family crest of four interlocked flying cranes. He sat impatiently while the attendant dried his shaven crown and reknotted his hair. Finally he fastened his two swords to his sash.
Maybe the shogun had a task for him to perform, Sano thought, one by which he could fulfill his promise to his father. Anticipation rose in his chest. He fought it down, cautioning himself that maybe the shogun, as a courtesy to the man who had served him well, merely planned to bestow a moment of attention on him before consigning him to oblivion thereafter. But he couldn’t help hoping otherwise.
On his way to the gate that led from the training grounds to the castle’s inner precinct, he glanced toward the archery targets. The other men had already collected their arrows. Only his remained. Sano looked away. Sticking up out of the grass an arm’s length short of the target, it did not seem an auspicious omen.