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Book Author: Susan Spann

FIRES OF EDO by Susan Spann: Book Review

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this semester I’m teaching an adult education course on historical mysteries.  At the time I proposed the course I hadn’t read any of Susan Spann’s novels about life in 16th-century Japan; I wish I had.  I’ll definitely keep them in mind for a future course.

Fires of Edo takes place in that city (now called Tokyo) in 1566.  At that time Edo was a city famous for its bookmaking, and the city was crammed full of bookstores that both made and sold books.  Historically, fires were a major part of life in Edo, crowded as it was with people, wooden buildings one on top of the other, and narrow, winding streets.

Hiro Hattori, a master ninja, and Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, a priest of the Creator God, from Portugal (as he introduces himself), stop for the night in Edo on their way to the Portuguese colony of Yokoseura.  Barely do they enter the city when they view a massive blaze just ahead of them.  At the time, there were no professional firefighters in Edo; the first such unit wouldn’t come into existence for more than fifty years.  Little more than a decade before the mystery opens, one of the city’s all-too-frequent conflagrations killed more than four hundred people, so Edo is well aware of the dangers of fires and the best means to combat them.

The building where the blaze starts belongs to Ishii, and it contains the small apartment where he lives, his books, and his book-binding equipment.  Ishii tells the Daisuke, the commander of the citizens’ fire brigade, that he is always extremely careful about protecting his building–never allowing a candle or a lantern inside his bedroom or in his shop.  The only fire had been in the stove, far from anything flammable.

By Japanese law, the bookstore owner is criminally responsible for the fire, whether he set it or was negligent in protecting his building.  In addition, a corpse is found in the smoldering ruins, which means that Ishii is now facing a murder charge as well as the ones stemming from the blaze itself.

Justice, or at least punishment, is quick.  Ishii is immediately brought before the magistrate, who makes it clear the position the defendant is in.  “By law, the penalty…is death.”  Father Mateo is horrified by the rush to judgment and believes Ishii when he says he is innocent, and the judge is swayed by the priest’s passion and allows the investigation to continue.  Hiro is stunned by the judge’s ruling.  “In his experience, magistrates cared more for punishment than justice.”  Thus the ninja and the priest determine to find the truth and spare Ishii if he is, in fact, innocent.

Susan Spann is an American living in Tokyo.  Her love and knowledge of Japan is clear throughout the novel, and she brings the history and rituals of 1566 Edo to life with her knowledge of the food, clothing, laws, and social mores that existed at the time.

You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.