Sara Keefe’s debut novel introduces us to the world of the admirable Helen Motosu, an alternate early 20th century Japan that will challenge your preconceptions of time and place. Helen’s strength as a sleuth is mainly her ability to read people, and as much of her time is spent in navigating social norms, managing her “help,” and working through her grief as in solving the mystery.
The mystery is charming, but what stays with me are those piercing moments when Helen’s first steps to reorient her life, coming almost a year after her husband’s death, are so authentic they glow. Those gems are uncommon in literature generally; I cannot recall ever having had the pleasure of that experience in a cozy murder mystery.
The world of Motosu differs from ours in some significant ways: far more advanced technology than was available in 1907 and more freedom for women than I would have expected (despite the obstacles she faces). I was struck by how much more open to Westerners her Japan was than I believed was the case at the period, but I’m certainly not an expert in Japanese history. But I still wondered if the Meiji Restoration didn’t occur as it did in our world, or if the Hibaya Riots of 1905 didn’t happen. Perhaps the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War had different terms, as it serves as the backdrop to the story, but isn’t fully explained.
Although the book blurb describes itself as steampunk, I saw very little steampunk sensibility in the novel but for one isolated instance that doesn’t bear on the main plot at all.
Keefe is definitely an author to watch. I look forward to more world-building in the following Motosu Mysteries books as there are so many unanswered questions about how this Japan came to be, and how Helen found her place in it.