Books / Reviews

'Lady First': Lea O'Harra examines gender roles in a murder mystery

by Louise George Kittaka

Women have made significant inroads towards infiltrating Japan’s patriarchal society, but their progress is still stymied by traditional views. With a long career as a university lecturer in Shikoku, Lea O’Harra draws on her own experiences to examine gender roles in provincial Japan in this, her third novel in the “Inspector Inoue mystery series.”

Lady First: An Inspector Inoue Mystery, by Lea O’Harra.
264 pages

The story opens with the brutal murder of a young woman, and the bluff yet goodhearted Inoue is charged with tracking down the assailant. The setting is the fictional town of Fujikawa in Kyushu, a region known for being particularly conservative. Many of the male characters are less than sympathetic, ranging from a sadistic wife beater to a self-satisfied foreign teacher who parades around his Japanese trophy wife.

The women, meanwhile, often struggle to carve out an identity. Even Ellie Inoue, the American wife of the main protagonist, is lauded for being a supportive spouse who alleviates her husband’s work stress.

While O’Harra does not sugarcoat the issues still facing many women in Japan, she does a nice job of introducing the eclectic ensemble cast of characters that populate Fujikawa, and writes about them in an intimate style reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Old-fashioned sleuthing skills and intuition are just as important as modern forensics in solving the murder mystery here, while unexpected little twists keep the plot moving along.

The harrowed residents of Fujikawa might be hoping for a quiet life after this, but with luck it won’t be long before O’Harra comes up with the next installment in this promising series.