Rowland, Laura Joh 1953-

views updated

Rowland, Laura Joh 1953-


Born 1953, in Harper Woods, MI; married; husband's name Marty (an environmental engineer). Education: University of Michigan, B.S., M.P.H.


Home—New Orleans, LA. Agent—Pamela Ahearn, Ahearn Agency Inc., 2021 Pine St., New Orleans, LA 70118.


Novelist. Worked as a chemist, a microbiologist, and a sanitary inspector; Martin Marietta, New Orleans, LA, senior quality control engineer, for fourteen years.



Shinju, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.

Bundori, Villard (New York, NY), 1996.

The Way of the Traitor, Villard (New York, NY), 1997.

The Concubine's Tattoo, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.

The Samurai's Wife, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Black Lotus, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2001.

The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2002.

The Dragon King's Palace, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2003.

The Perfumed Sleeve, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2004.

The Assassin's Touch, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2005.

Red Chrysanthemum, St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2006.

The Snow Empress St. Martin's Minotaur (New York, NY), 2007.


Before becoming a published author, Laura Joh Rowland worked as a quality control engineer at an aerospace company, using her lunch hours and weekends to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. Her first two novels were repeatedly rejected for publication, but the undaunted Rowland wrote a third, Shinju, which she presented to a Random House editor at a writers' conference. Rowland's agent, meanwhile, sent the book to several other publishers. Three publishers auctioned for the rights to Shinju and its sequel, with Random House winning at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars.

Shinju, the Japanese term for "double love suicide," is set in seventeenth-century Tokyo, where police are investigating the apparent shinju of a peasant and the daughter of a prominent citizen. Although the investigating officer, Sano Ichiro, is instructed to close the case because it looks like a suicide, he strongly suspects it to be a murder. Sano subsequently launches his own investigation, which leads him to confront corrupt and deceitful elements in the upper echelon of Japanese society. F.G. Notehelfer wrote in his New York Times Book Review assessment of Shinju: "An interesting and even exciting tale, Ms. Rowland's novel introduces us to a new detective who, I suspect, will appear in further adventures." While Notehelfer indicated flaws in Rowland's historical research, he neverthelesstrust that her considerable talent for historical fiction will not be undermined by a crotchety historian's own concerns for the truth." Shinju was also applauded by a Publishers Weekly critic: "Rowland crafts a competent mystery her first time out, shows sure command of her background material and demonstrates that she is a writer of depth and potential."

On her Web site, Rowland, who is of Korean and Chinese ancestry, commented on the unique historical setting of her mystery. "I wanted to explore a time, place, and characters that didn't appear in other books I'd read," the author remarked. "I wanted to experience a world other than my own." Rowland added that seventeenth-century Japan "was a police state, filled with simmering tensions, political corruption, sex, and violence. Arts, entertainment, and religion flourished. This was an environment that had great potential for interesting crime."

Sano Ichiro returns in Bundori, the story of a series of particularly gruesome murders in 1690s Tokyo: the killer leaves his victims' severed heads in public places.

All the victims are descendants of warriors involved a century earlier in the murder of a Japanese warlord. Sano's investigation leads him to members of Tokyo's ruling elite who have revenge in mind. According to the critic in Publishers Weekly: "The novel reads smoothly and positively smokes with historical atmospherics."

The Way of the Traitor finds Sano trying to locate a missing Dutch trade director in the city of Nagasaki. When the missing man is found murdered, the Dutch demand a quick accounting of the facts by training their warships' heavy guns on the city. Amid the international tension caused by the death, Sano must confront powerful government officials in unraveling the case. Rex E. Klett in the Library Journal called the novel "exciting, exotic entertainment," while David Pitt in Booklist labeled the mystery "well constructed, superbly written, and very entertaining" and concludes that it is "an excellent whodunit."

Sano is marrying the Lady Ueda Reiko at the opening of The Concubine's Tattoo; he is called away unexpectedly by the death of a concubine employed by the local shogun. The concubine has been poisoned by ink she used in a tattoo. Sano's investigation must be successful or the shogun will put him to death. His new bride insists on involving herself in the dangerous case as well. "Rowland's understanding of the society she depicts," wrote the critic for Publishers Weekly, "shines through, and she succeeds in presenting Sano as an intriguing combination of wiliness and decency, making this a good bet for fans of historicals as well as of mysteries past."

Sano and Reiko combine their skills to unravel the mystery surrounding the murder of an imperial minister in The Samauri's Wife. The dead man was a spy with many valuable secrets, and was killed with a rare martial art technique. Sano learns that the dead man had also uncovered a plot against the shogun. Civil war is a possibility if the assassin is not found. Rowland portrays the "class distinctions of her characters with subtlety and pulls together the strands of her multifaceted plot with enviable grace," commented a Publishers Weekly writer. The author's "fascinating insights" into life in seventeenth-century Japan were also praised by George Needham in Booklist.

The husband-and-wife crime-solving team are pitted against each other in Black Lotus, in which a teenaged girl is accused of arson and murder. Sano feels the girl is guilty, but Reiko does not. As they take different tacks in investigating the crime, their dogged pursuit "for the truth threatens the fabric of their marriage," observed a Publishers Weekly writer. The critic added, "The question of religious cults and the abuse of their influence gives this story contemporary resonance."

The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria exposes the more bizarre sexual practices of old Japan in another tale of court intrigue. When the shogun's heir apparent is found dead in an opulent brothel, everyone in Japan hopes to find the killer and thus win the favor of the shogun. But rivalries and loves among those who seek to solve the crime complicate the issue. Readers must decide for themselves if the "salacious details spice or undercut Sano's struggle to remain honorable in a dishonorable world," advised a Kirkus Reviews contributor. A Publishers Weekly writer found that "all the animosity and fear in this seamless work is put forth in demure language that perfectly suits the culture Rowland portrays."

The Dragon King's Palace, Rowland's eighth "Sano Ichiro" mystery, is "a lively dissection of the samurai code of honor, sexual dishonor, palace infighting, and ancient Japanese mores," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews. While traveling to Mount Fiji, Reiko is abducted along with Midori, her best friend, Lady Keisho-in, the shogun's mother, and Lady Yanagisawa, the demented wife of Chamberlain Yanagisawa. The four are imprisoned by the enigmatic Dragon King, who declares that he will free the captives if the shogun assassinates Police Commissioner Hoshina. At the request of the shogun, Sano must work with his political archrivals, Yanagisawa and Hoshina, to rescue the women. "Rowland's masterful evocation of the period enables the reader to identify with the universal human emotions and drives that propel her characters," a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted.

In The Perfumed Sleeve, Sano investigates the suspicious death of Makino Narasada, a senior elder and a trusted advisor to the shogun. Though it first appears Makino died of natural causes, Sano finds a clue pointing to murder: a perfumed sleeve that was torn from a kimono. The investigator's work comes under close scrutiny from the shogun's cousin, Lord Matsudaira, and Chamberlain Yanagisawa, both of whom wish to succeed the shogun and accuse the other of Makino's death. According to a contributor in Kirkus Reviews, the author "pushes aside the mystery altogether to stir up a stew of sexual and political intrigue, above which Sano stoically rises."

Sano and Reiko look into a pair of seemingly unrelated mysteries in The Assassin's Touch. When a high-ranking intelligence officer dies suddenly during a horse race, Sano, now the shogun's chamberlain, learns that the official was assassinated by a martial arts master. Reiko, meanwhile, pursues a sensitive case involving an outcast young woman who is accused of murdering her parents and sister. During their investigations, Sano and Reiko uncover a secret group intent on overthrowing the regime. A critic in Publishers Weekly noted that "the compelling story line, evocative detail and suspense should engage newcomers and satisfy longtime fans alike."

In Red Chrysanthemum, Sano probes the gruesome murder of a treasonous nobleman. The chief suspect is Sano's pregnant wife, Reiko, who was found, naked and bloody, next to the mutilated corpse of Lord Mori. When Reiko cannot explain what transpired, Sano begins to doubt his spouse's innocence. In the words of Library Journal reviewer Jo Ann Vicarel, Red Chrysanthemum "is a gem of exquisite plotting and characterization."



AB Bookman's Weekly, September 20, 1999, review of The Concubine's Tattoo, p. 380.

Booklist, April 15, 1997, David Pitt, review of The Way of the Traitor p. 1412; March 1, 2000, George Needham, review of The Samurai's Wife, p. 1199; February 15, 2003, David Pitt, review of The Dragon King's Palace, p. 1055; July 1, 2005, David Pitt, review of The Assassin's Touch, p. 1906; October 1, 2006, David Pitt, review of Red Chrysanthemum, p. 42.

Drood Review of Mystery, January, 2001, reviews of The Samauri's Wife and Black Lotus, p. 23.

Entertainment Weekly, November 24, 2006, Adam B. Vary, review of Red Chrysanthemum, p. 113.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2002, review of The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, p. 226; February 1, 2003, review of The Dragon King's Palace, p. 192; March 15, 2004, review of The Perfumed Sleeve, p. 252; July 1, 2005, review of The Assassin's Touch, p. 711; September 15, 2006, review of Red Chrysanthemum, p. 932.

Library Journal, May 1, 1997, Rex E. Klett, review of The Way of the Traitor, p. 143; March 1, 2001, Rex E. Klett, review of Black Lotus, p. 133; March 1, 2003, Rex E. Klett, review of The Dragon King's Palace, p. 123; April 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of The Perfumed Sleeve, p. 128; August 1, 2005, Rex E. Klett, review of The Assassin's Touch, p. 59; November 1, 2006, Jo Ann Vicarel, "Mystery," review of Red Chrysanthemum, p. 54.

New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1994, F.G. Notehelfer, review of Shinju, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1994, review of Shinju, p. 368; January 15, 1996, review of Bundori, p. 443; May 12, 1997, review of The Way of the Traitor, p. 62; September 21, 1998, review of The Concubine's Tattoo, p. 77; March 6, 2000, review of The Samurai's Wife, p. 86; January 29, 2001, review of Black Lotus, p. 68; March 11, 2002, review of The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, p. 54; February 3, 2003, review of The Dragon King's Palace, p. 57; March 1, 2004, review of The Perfumed Sleeve, p. 53; June 6, 2005, review of The Assassin's Touch, p. 43; August 28, 2006, review of Red Chrysanthemum, p. 34.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 1, 2001, review of Black Lotus, p. 2.


BookBrowse, (October 1, 2002), "Laura Joh Rowland.", (May 1, 2002), Michelle Calabro Hubbard, review of The Samurai's Wife.

Laura Joh Rowland Home Page, (June 1, 2007).

Mystery Reader, (May 1, 2002), Lesley Dunlap, review of Black Lotus.