Another in an occasional series. Once again, I have no idea where I learned about this mystery series created by I.J. Parker. And once again, I finished The Dragon Scroll before I started this entry.
The detective is a young aristocrat (she describes him as “impecunious descendant” of his family), who lives in Japan during the Heian era. The book opens in A.C.E. 1014 and takes Sugawara Akitada from Kyoto, then the capital, into the countryside. His mission is to learn what happened to three shipments of tax payments, along with the escorts, that left one of the eastern provinces but never made it to emperor’s coffers.
Parker sets up the story with an attack on a young noblewoman. Nothing more comes of this brief incident until after the mystery of the tax payments is resolved and then it comes an afterthoughr with minimal connection to the investigation into the missing money, goods, and people.
The main tale winds on an awfully long and convoluted trip from Point A to Point X. In that regard it’s much like the story of the Tale of Genji, and so fits form to content.
The characters, too, have a stock quality. Akitada seems a befuddled young man. Then there is the wise older servant, the impetuous and not wholly honest younger sidekck. There are the various suspects – the governor, the military man, the monk, etc. I couldn’t engage with any of them. And with one exception, the women are cyphers. Skilled in martial arts, Ayako is a fascinating creature, and I hope she makes a return appearance in later novels.
Despite these drawbacks I will give at least one more Sugawara Akitada mystery a try because of the wealth of information about Japan that Parker supplies without becoming didactic. For example, our hero’s education includes Chinese language and culture. He models his behavior on the Confucian precepts of ethics and dislikes the Buddhist faith practiced by the aristocracy.
Parker also gives the first two chapters a date: Leaf-Turning Month (September) and Gods-Absent Month (November). I wish she had continued that practice in later chapters.
Her greatest strength is the poetic descriptions of the settings:
The back gate of the empty mansion swung loose in the wind, and [Akitada] stopped in for a look at the garden. The studio slept under a mantel of white. At the small pond, [the] fish rose from the black depths at his approach, still expecting their owner’s hand dispensing food. But only snow fell and melted on the black water. One by one the silver and gold shapes turned and sank again to the bottom. When Akitada left, he looked back. His steps marred the pristine white paths, perhaps never to be swept again. He latched the gate behind himself.