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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #50 (December 9-15,
2003), page 11 and 16.
Mystery spirits readers to ancient Japan
The Hell Screen: A Mystery of Ancient Japan
By I. J. Parker
St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2003
Hardcover, 352 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
From the books of Patricia Cornwall to television shows like "CSI," murder mysteries these days are solved more often with ultra-scientific techniques, by pathologists squinting through a microscope in a laboratory, rather than by shrewd detectives making deductions at the scene of the crime. Bucking this trend is I.J. Parker, a college professor turned mystery writer who sets her murder mysteries nearly a thousand years ago, in imperial Japan. Her sleuth is a nobleman and junior-grade government official named Akitada Sugawara, who uses science to help him solve cases, but more often relies on classic detective skills such as legwork and logic.
In The Hell Screen, Parker’s latest book featuring this throwback detective, Akitada is returning to the capital city of Heian Kyo, having completed his assignment as governor of the distant province of Eichigo. He stays overnight at a monastery during his travels, and Akitada’s choice of accommodation turns out to be a fateful one. The night he is there, Nobuko, the wife of an antiquities merchant, is murdered and horribly mutilated in the monastery. At first it seems no more than an unfortunate coincidence, and Nobuko’s brother-in-law Kojiro is quickly implicated. Kojiro had been found unconscious and bloodied next to Nobuko’s body in a locked room, his sword the apparent instrument of her horrible demise, an excess of wine the evident motive. Akitada finishes his journey to Heian Kyo, where his own private concerns await him, and he assumes the horrible event has concluded itself swiftly.
But when Kojiro recants his confession, Akitada is asked to assist the superintendent of police, and he finds that the pieces of the case do not quite fit. With the aid of his trusty retainers Tora and Genba, the sleuth follows a mystery that will lead him through the seedier quarters of Heian Kyo and into the surrounding countryside to uncover the truth. Along the way he meets such memorable characters as the rotund acrobat Miss Plumblossom and the fanatical artist Noami, painter of the macabre screen of the book’s title, on display at the fateful monastery.
With such lively secondary characters and her vivid portrayals of life in Heian-era Japan, I.J. Parker makes The Hell Screen much more than just a compelling murder mystery. Akitada’s personal and professional difficulties shed light on the hidebound traditions of his time. One of his sisters has fallen in love with Kojiro, who is beneath her station as well as an accused murderer, and so Akitada forbids her to associate with him. His other sister is married to a man who is suspected of theft from the Imperial treasury, and Akitada must navigate the tricky entanglement of imperial service as he tries to clear his brother-in-law’s name. He also wrestles with his feelings for his cold, hateful mother after her death, even as he must show respect to her memory.
Parker makes historical elements like these seem surprisingly contemporary, even in this distant setting, making this book a joy to read. Even the portrayal of the afterlife in the titular Hell Screen gives Parker the chance to touch on the "new" Buddhism that is slowly displacing the more traditional Confucianism. The Hell Screen has the flourishes typical of its genre — cliffhanger chapter endings and harrowing disappearances and rescues — but these are not the driving force behind the book. Even the murder itself seems almost an afterthought, or at most one compelling element amid Akitada’s other concerns. Parker skillfully braids these different threads together to create a work that is certain to bind any reader to a chair, unwilling to put the book down.
Parker’s first book featuring Akitada, Rashomon Gate (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2002), followed on the heels of her short story, "Akitada’s First Case," published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1999 and the recipient of that year’s Shamus Award for Best P.I. Short Story. Rashomon Gate received much critical acclaim, as well as inevitable parallels drawn between Parker and the mystery writer Robert van Gulik.
Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, between 1949 and 1968 wrote seventeen historical mysteries featuring Judge Dee, an amateur Chinese sleuth who lived during the T’ang dynasty. Van Gulik is widely credited as being the first Westerner to feature an historically accurate Asian detective in his mysteries. His first novel, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, was a translation of an 18th-century Chinese novel, itself based on an actual historical case, but the rest of his novels featured plots of his own invention. He continues to have a wide readership even today, and Parker admits that he was a "primary influence" on her own work.
I.J. Parker has followed van Gulik’s lead in part, basing the central murder mystery of The Hell Screen on a case from T’ang-yin-pi-shi, a collection of 12th-century Chinese criminal cases, translated by van Gulik himself. And like the famed Dutch writer, Parker has moved beyond the historical to create a compelling page-turner that entertains as well as it informs, and leaves any avid mystery reader wanting more about the adventures of Akitada Sugawara.