Laura Joh Rowland's latest Sano Ichiro mystery, "The Assassin's Touch," is exotic, suspenseful, and filled with political intrigue. Sano Ichiro, formerly sosakan-sama, Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People, has been promoted to chamberlain. As the shogun's second-in-command, he is inundated with a mountain of paperwork and dull administrative duties. When a rash of unexplained deaths among high-ranking government officials threatens the current regime, Sano is ordered to determine whether these officials were murdered, and if so, by whom. Although he is relieved to be back in the field, Sano knows that if he fails in his mission, he may quickly lose his influence and most likely, his exalted position.
Chamberlain Sano's wife, Lady Reiko, is a devoted mother to her young son, but she has an inquiring mind and a restless nature. She is not content to stay quietly at home, tending to domestic duties. In the past, Reiko served as an unofficial private investigator for her husband. However, now that Sano is an administrator, Reiko's services are no longer needed, and she is at loose ends. Suddenly, a new opportunity for sleuthing presents itself when Reiko's father, Magistrate Ueda, urges his daughter to help determine the guilt or innocence of a woman named Yuago, who is accused of murdering her parents and sister. Reiko rashly agrees to help the magistrate, not realizing that her decision will bring her much trouble and untold grief.
"The Assassin's Touch" is colorful, action-packed, and fast-paced. Sano and Reiko are appealing protagonists and Rowland populates her mystery with a large and fascinating cast of characters. These include Lord Matsudaira, the shogun's cousin who controls the country while the slow-witted shogun wields power in name only. Hirata, the man who inherited Sano's old position, is in constant agony from an old sword wound that crippled him for life. Yet, when Sano asks his old friend to help him, the loyal retainer fights his excruciating pain and resolves to do his duty. Yuago, whom Reiko is investigating, is an angry and violent woman hiding an explosive secret, and the assassin of the title is an elusive villain who is a practitioner of the mystical martial arts. Sano Ichiro faces a formidable and highly dangerous foe who can kill with a touch.
There are a few weaknesses in "The Assassin's Touch," such as the far-fetched coincidences that cause Reiko's and Sano's cases to unexpectedly merge. In addition, the dialogue is a bit stilted and, at times, too contemporary for the time period. Finally, the somewhat melodramatic ending requires a large suspension of disbelief. Still, Laura Joh Rowland is a gifted storyteller with a talent for writing atmospheric historical fiction. The author's wealth of descriptive detail brings seventeenth century Japan to brilliant life. She shows the brutal and dark side of Edo at that time, with its courtesans, sadists, opportunists, and murderers, but she also features admirable characters who are courageous and unselfish. Although "The Assassin's Touch" is not a perfect mystery, it is a lively, entertaining, and engrossing thriller that will please the many fans of this popular series.