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Mystery in Ancient Japan (Part 2 of 2) March 29, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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(Continued from a previous post.)

The other author to have made a name for herself writing mysteries set in Ancient Japan is I. J. Parker, whose protagonist du jour is the clever Sugawara Akitada.

Parker’s stories are set in 11th century Japan, when Heian Kyo (modern-day Kyoto) was the country’s capital. The first of these, The Dragon Scroll, introduces readers to the young Sugawara, an impoverished nobleman occupying a low-ranking position in the Ministry of Justice. In one of his first assignments, he is sent to the province of Kazusa to investigate the matter of missing tax convoys. Upon arriving, however, he is dismayed to realize he had been assigned there ostensibly to whitewash the incident and give the provincial government a rubber stamp of approval; in short, he has been sent there to fail. Yet his underlying sense of duty and knack for getting to the bottom of things work to his advantage as he slowly but surely makes progress, unearthing schemes that are much larger than he could have possibly imagined. Sugawara’s adventures are continued in the sequels Rashomon Gate, where he goes on leave from his ministerial duties in order to investigate purported anomalies at the state university, and later on in Black Arrow, which finds Sugawara assuming the role of governor at the northern border province of Naoetsu.

There is a specific formula that Parker applies to her stories that makes for engaging reading. For one thing, each novel involves not just a single mystery but what quickly evolve into a series of mysteries that, quite naturally, tie into each another. As such, Parker is able to leave readers guessing about the direction the story is taking perhaps much longer than the usual novel, without necessarily throwing in the obligatory red herring. More notably, while Parker sets up Sugawara as her protagonist, it becomes apparent in each story that the detective work is not so much a one-man show as it is a team effort, with Sugawara’s loyal retainers and the other allies he acquires along the way playing key roles.

If there is anything to complain about in Parker’s works, it would be in two areas. First, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that each of the Sugawara Akitada novels are a tad underwhelming for the mystery genre. The singular joy of jumping headfirst in a good mystery is the big reveal; yet in each of her novels, Parker seems to prefer subtlety to drama at the climax of her tales. At best, it may be argued that this is in keeping with the historical setting within which her stories are situated. Second, the Japanese flavor of these tales at times comes across as underplayed, if not incidental. This is only to say, however, that Parker does not seek to bend over backwards to introduce cultural elements to the story where they are not warranted. Granted, to some extent these boil down to a choice of style more than anything else.

Nevertheless, the one area where the author shines is in her ability to write characters with whom readers can empathize. Again, each of the Sugawara Akitada novels is as much about the protagonist — who is deceptively easy to identify with — as it is about the colorful supporting cast, and in setting up each story in this way it is clear that Parker is writing to her strengths. Perhaps this is a manifestation of her skill at short story writing, albeit in an extended format (and it is worth noting that she has written a number of short stories also featuring Sugawara Akitada). As such, each of her books is perhaps less elaborate than the typical novel, but retain the charm and simple elegance of a good short story and are just as engaging. Further, there is a historical note added at the end of each novel that briefly expounds on some of the cultural aspects of the book, demonstrating that good research ultimately makes for compelling reading (especially in fiction).

If Laura Joh Rowland and I. J. Parker are any indication, Japan as a setting for mysteries written in the English language is an idea long overdue. While the two authors have convincingly carved out their respective niches in the area with their irrepressible characters, it is clear that there are many creative possibilities left to be explored for stories along these lines. If these accomplish anything, it will be to remind us that great detectives can be clad in kimonos and topknots, too.

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1. Mystery in Ancient Japan (Part 1 of 2) « BRAIN DRAIN - April 3, 2007

[…] Private Thoughts for Public Consumption. « Healing America by Beating People Up Mystery in Ancient Japan (Part 2 of 2) […]


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