By Dawn Ius
Samurai detective Sano Ichiro is working his last—and most dangerous—case.
For the many fans of bestselling author Laura Joh Rowland, this is perhaps bittersweet. Because after more than twenty years and seventeen books, THE IRIS FAN marks the stunning conclusion to Rowland’s series of thrillers set in feudal Japan.
“[These characters] are like family, and saying goodbye to them is heart-wrenching,” Rowland says. “But I’m happy as well as sad, because I think it’s the right thing to do. In such a long series, the later books can never be as original and fresh as the first few. Some of the later books are better works of art and craft than the earlier ones, but my initial creative excitement has diminished over the years.”
That doesn’t mean readers aren’t in for a triumphant conclusion, though. In THE IRIS FAN, Sano Ichiro is restored to the rank of chief investigator to find the person responsible for stabbing a shogun with a fan made of painted silk and sharp-pointed iron ribs. If he fails, his family and his life are at risk.
“Sano and his long-time enemy, Yanagisawa, make a deal from hell,” Rowland says, admitting that this novel is one of her favorites in the series—not only because it’s the “end” but also because it’s a culmination of everything she’s learned about the craft of writing.
“When I wrote the first book (Shinju, published in 1994), I was still learning how to juggle the elements of fiction, and some basic things about the mystery genre slipped by me,” she says. “I forgot that a series needs, in addition to a detective, a cast of recurring characters. In subsequent books I gave Sano a boss, a sidekick, an enemy, a wife, and two kids, who all have important roles in the stories. One of the challenges of writing a series character is making him change and grow over time, like a real-life person. That happened to Sano, although I didn’t plan it out when I first created him.”
Rowland didn’t actually start out as a writer, at all. She began her career in science, working as a chemist, a microbiologist, a sanitary inspector, and even took a job as a quality engineer with Lockheed Martin at the NASA facility where the fuel tank for the Space Shuttle was built.
“I’m a late bloomer—I didn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my thirties,” she says. “I worked in science for many years, mostly because it paid well enough and I could do creative stuff on the side. While writing isn’t easy, it comes more naturally to me than other creative pursuits.”
Although the publishing industry has evolved, Rowland understood at the start of her career that to make her mark in the competitive mystery genre, she would need to write something really special.
Her father was a big mystery fan. He loved Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane, Ross McDonald, and other great, classic detective writers. Rowland says she’s a real chip off the old block. She started out reading Nancy Drew, then progressed to her father’s favorites and the many other authors who fill the mystery racks at libraries.
“I chose Japan because I’d been interested in it since college, when I studied Asian history and art and fell in love with Akira Kurosawa’s movies,” she says. “Also, I wanted to do a mystery with an all Asian cast of characters. I’d like for there to be more books about Asians, and I figured that one way to make this happen was to write one myself.”
The potential risk clearly paid off. THE IRIS FAN is the eighteenth book in a series that will continue to resonate with Rowland’s fans long after the conclusion.
Though she’s moving away from her samurai detective, rest assured, Rowland isn’t leaving writing. She’s already hard at work on her next project, a historical thriller set in Victorian England.
Laura Joh Rowland is the author of a mystery series set in medieval Japan, featuring samurai detective Sano Ichiro. Her work has been published in 14 countries, won the RT Reader’s Choice Award, and been included in The Wall Street Journal’s list of the five best historical mystery novels. Her latest book, the eighteenth in the series, is THE IRIS FAN. Laura lives in New York City.
To learn more about Laura Joh Rowland, please visit her website.