The Hooblers: Samurai Detective Series-Books 3 and 7

by Rachel Baker on April 26, 2014

I just had the pleasure of spending the last two days reading two books from the Samurai Detective series by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.  Let me start with, if you haven’t read any of their books, you should.  They are always well-reasearched and well-written.

I was thrilled to be asked to review the latest book in the series, The Red-Headed Demon, because one side of my family is of close Japanese descent (significant other’s father was born in Japan).  It can be a more fulfilling experience in my opinion to read books that have a connection to the reader or the reader’s family.

When asked for a synopsis of the series, the authors also decided to send me the third book in the series In Darkness, Death.  This book won them the 2005 Edgar Award for Best YA Mystery.  And, one can completely see why.

The premise for the series is excellent.  The main character, Seikei, gets assigned tasks by his adoptive father who is Judge to the Shogun.  These tasks help the Judge solve crimes that have been committed in the realm. The series is set in 18th Century Japan, thusly, the books have a great deal of historical merit – and this is truly where the authors shine.  The Judge is a real historical person named Judge Ooka.

In fact, the Hooblers referenced a real life farmers’ dispute with the Lord of their fiefdom (probably the same one referenced on the wikipedia page) in Book 3, and made it a possible motive for the crime Seikei was helping to investigate.  While this story is definitely from the imagination of the authors (as stated in their author’s notes at the back of book 3), it does have some historical elements that sophisticated readers who do a bit of research will be able to find more information on.

For the most part, I didn’t need to read books 1 or 2 to understand what Seiko’s life had been and how he had become a Judge’s son (from the Samurai class) when he had been born a merchant’s son.  The authors made sure there were more than enough references in the story for the reader to not have read the first two books.  In fact, by the time I’d finished the seventh and newest book in the series, I wanted to pour through the other books to see how many times it was referenced to see if the authors felt their readers were sophisticated enough to have caught it the first time it was referenced in detail in each book.

Basing stories around a young boy who aspires to be more than he was born to be is a great premise for a series of books for boys and girls.  In book 7, their newest book titled The Red-Headed Demon, the main premise of the book is to introduce two boys from different cultures.  At the end of the book, the main character learns he shouldn’t judge people based on appearance and that racism will cause all sorts of misunderstandings.  It was a great moral story, not as wonderful as the parables of old, but right up there.   I loved the idea of looking at two different cultures and how that might look to a young child with the differences in values, language, food and even appearance.

As one can surmise from the title, the story had a red-headed boy as a character.  This boy (Hans) was from a foreign country and Seikei (the main character boy) had to get him safely across the country after his doctor uncle had been poisoned. While virtually every page had evidence of the differences between Seikei’s culture and Han’s culture, it wasn’t until one realized how many references there were to how ugly the red headed boy was with his ugly nose, and his weird eyes and his ugly brown spots on his pale skin that looked like he’d had his blood taken out, that the prejudices became apparent.  Frankly, it made the book a bit of a flop, because this reader couldn’t figure out why the authors felt the need to slap their readers in the face with the racism. It was already apparent that Seikei felt Han’s was a barbarian compared to his own superiority without making him point out how ugly Hans was as often as he did.

Again, reading books that connect to a reader’s experiences make for a more fulfilling experience.  Except, I found myself offended by the amount of references there were to how ugly Hans, with his red hair, was. While one side of my family has close and direct ancestors from Japan, my side of the family has a many red-heads (natural red-heads), who all have pale skin, many many freckles (in my family we called them sprinkles, not brown spots) and the most beautiful fiery red head imaginable.

While I am sophisticated enough to know that foreigners to Japan were considered red-headed demons, I am also sophisticated enough to know that one can convey cultural difference and prejudices to children (and most specifically, young adults) without using something that isn’t considered racism anymore. It became apparent to me the authors didn’t really understand how much bullying goes on against kids with red hair and it truly seemed to be incredibly irresponsible to believe their YA readers, who also read and love books like twilight, and want to fall in love with vampires and werewolves are sophisticated enough to not start calling the redheads in their schools red-headed demons. There just seemed to be no reason to have Hans be a red head when neither his uncle nor the priest were. And if Hans did need to be for the story, there was no reason for Seikei to dwell on how ugly he was.

Further, it seemed inconsistent for Seikei, the biological son of a merchant, who had been lucky enough to be adopted by a Samurai Judge, would be as critical as he was about Hans. He, of all people, already knew it better not to judge a person by his appearance (or his lot in life).  In fact, its apparent in both books I read that he got the same type of prejudices directed at him by other samurai.  Also, based on Seikei’s interactions with the farmers in Book 3, I feel like he would have been less critical of Hans and more understanding of him being in a different place.  Seikei showed way less compassion in his interactions and thoughts about Hans than is consistent with his character…even if he’d never seen a foreigner before.

In closing, both books were good quick reads with a wonderful amount of historical background and reference.  The books are quick-paced full of mystery and intrigue.  I truly did love the story and the premise of the series.  I think my issue with The Red-Headed Demon could have easily been rectified by a compassionate editor who had an inkling of understanding about how red-heads are bullied and made fun of.

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