Our books today are the utterly delightful Sugawara Akitada mysteries of I. J. Parker, set in the Heian heyday of 11th-Century Japan and starring brainy but frustrated Sugawara Akitada, a low-level clerk in the Ministry of Justice whose father died while he was studying at university and who is therefore compelled to act as the family patriarch and breadwinner for his bitter mother, his two younger sisters, and the family’s servants. The family has noble blood and descends from finer prospects, and that, plus the fact that he’s sharper than everybody around him, tends to make Akitada abrupt when he should be patient and outspoken when he should be silent.
Parker, whose debts to Robert Van Gulik’s great Judge Dee novels are too manifest to need detailing, does a similarly understated and wonderful job of bringing to life Akitada’s world – the tensions of his family life, the hyper-regimented tedium of his professional life, and broader world into which he inevitably ventures on various assignments for the Ministry of Justice. Akitada is a young man when we first meet him in 2005′s The Dragon Scroll, eager to prove himself worthy of more than the bureaucratic drudgery of the Ministry’s paperwork, and it’s great fun to watch him grab at more and more opportunities as the series progresses.
Parker is very good at winking give-and-take in dialogue, and she’s also confident and non-showy in constructing the actual whodunits at the heart of her stories. And she possesses one other little skill – something Van Gulik had down to a cold science – that always pleases me when it’s done well: the creepy opening, in which we see the initial crime being committed but have key identifying details tantalizingly left out. I love how the creepy opening emotionally invests us in the crime without spoiling the ensuing guesswork, and Parker is generally first-rate at the gambit, as at the beginning of The Dragon Scroll:
Just past the temple, in an open field where squatters had built their tattered shacks, the second watcher caught up with the young woman.
The human predator had expected his prey to return with her lover, whose long sword he had prepared against by positioning his men close by, but this was far better.
Grinning, he jumped into her path. She stopped and gasped. Just then the clouds parted and the moonlight fell on his face. Recoiling in horror, she screamed.
This time the goddess did not hear.
The corpse was headless. It lay huddled in a dark corner where only the faint light of the moon filtering through the wooden shutters picked out the paleness of naked skin from the prevailing gloom.
A dark shadow moved in the gray light, and an ancient voice rasped, “Look around for the head!”
“What for?” growled another voice. A second shadow joined the first. “It’s no use to anybody but the rats.” The speaker cackled suddenly. “Or hungry ghosts. For playing kickball.”
“Fool!” the first shadowy creature turned and, for a moment, the moonlight caught a wild mane of tangled white hair. It was a woman, crouching demonlike over the body, her claws quickly tucking some white, soft fabric inside her ragged robe. “I want the hair.”
And through all the novels, we have our same old impetuous Akitada, who “can’t help himself” when piping up to his superiors, typified in a quick scene from 2007′s Island of Exiles when he can’t abide even for courtesy’s sake the flimsy story to high-ranking Imperial envoys give him for why they’ve travelled to a remote prison in the Sea of Japan:
The thin man bit his lip and exchanged a glance with his friend. “We traveled to Sado to verify the facts.”
Akitada shook his head. “I do not think so. The journey to Sado Island from the capital is long and dangerous. In this instance, Your Excellencies appear to have undertaken the journey wihtout escort and incognito. Would a minor squabble between two provinical administrators really cause His Majesty to send his most trusted advisors on such an assignment?”
There’s a subtle thread of wisdom running through most of Parker’s Akitada novels, the sure feel of an author who’s read and studied deeply (this, too, is welcome echo of Van Gulik). We can almost see the sly grin on our author’s face when she has her eager young sleuth decipher a scroll by Meng Tse: “Seek the truth and thou shalt find it! Neglect the truth, and it shall be lost forever! The seeking is within they power, but the finding is in the hands of heaven.”