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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #47 (November 21, 2006), page 13.

Another piercing mystery from I.J. Parker

Black Arrow

By I.J. Parker

Penguin, 2006

Paperback, 356 pages, $14.00

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

In Black Arrow, her latest Sugawara Akitada mystery, I.J. Parker moves far from Heian Kyo, capital of 11th-century Japan, to the northern province of Echigo, where the chilly climate is as inhospitable to Akitada as are the inhabitants. Although her sleuth is in unfamiliar territory, Parker clearly is not, continuing in her fine tradition of intricately plotted mysteries, accurate historical detail, and prose well suited to its subject matter. Black Arrow contains more violence and bloody scenes than her previous books, but it strikes the target dead center, and will certainly please Parkerís ever-growing cadre of devoted fans, along with those new to this masterful writer.

Akitadaís assignment in Echigo, assuming the provincial governorship, holds both prestige and danger for him. The emperor only recently brought the northern provinces (including Echigo) under his control, and the inhabitants are still becoming accustomed to imperial authority. Farther north of Echigo, imperial forces continue to battle the barbarians, who have many sympathizers among the locals. From the moment he sets foot in the provincial capital of Naoetsu, Akitada encounters simmering hostility towards imperial authority, and against him as its representative.

Investigating a local murder, Akitada finds not only resistance to his questions, but also a possible cover-up when three innocent men are quickly framed for the crime. When Akitada reopens the provincial court to what he expects will be a long backlog of legal disputes, none of the locals come forward, suggesting that they trust a different authority. After several run-ins with insubordinate soldiers and defiant merchants, Akitada learns that what he had first interpreted as anti-imperial sentiment may actually be a far more serious case of insurrection. And the strange black-fletched arrow appearing at unexpected points in the story hints at a mysterious group that may assist Akitada ó or throw its lot in with the rebels.

Akitada is soon followed to Naoetsu by his pregnant wife, Tomiko, along with his other retainers, who are familiar to Parker fans: the elderly Seimei; the stout, jolly wrestler Genbei; and the stoic Hitomaro. These secondary characters not only become intimately involved in the plot, they grow and change as a result. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that Parker is unafraid of adding to, or subtracting from, the retinue surrounding Akitada Sugawara. Bringing Tomiko and their unborn child to Naoetsu also increases the stakes for Akitada, forcing him to deal with difficult emotional issues even as he unravels the mystery behind the rebellious locals.

Interspersed with the plot, which gradually unfolds with the elegance of a beautifully painted fan, are the elements of history and culture that make Parkerís books an education as well as a reading pleasure. A wrestling tournament provides local color, while a band of outcasts and mystics both aid Akitada and shine a light into lesser-known corners of Japanese history. Hewing close to the historical facts, Parker creates the memorable, and impregnable, Takata stronghold and manor, which provides the stage for her mysteryís dramatic conclusion.

The higher stakes for Akitada may be the reason for the increased violence in this book, which is only mildly unsettling and never gratuitous ó and certainly not out of place in any murder mystery. In fact, it is precisely the heightened tension and perilous drama that make Black Arrow such a pleasure, and distinguish it from Parkerís earlier mysteries. Instead of the refined pleasures available to him in the capital city, Akitada and Tomiko must make do with the primitive conditions in Naoetsu, where his simple flute playing is treated with distrust and suspicion. Even the natural world seems to be against Akitada, as the impending snows of the winter will seal him in the province, for better or worse, and increase the sense of urgency for him to solve the case.

Facing the most perilous adventure yet of his young career, Akitada learns almost as much about his new and native countrymen as we do. The ongoing development of his character, as well as those around him, is yet another reason to start reading this marvelous series of historical mysteries. Whether among the gently drifting cherry blossoms of Heian Kyo in the springtime, or in the driving snow of a Naoetsu winter, Akitada and his scientific detective methods always pierce straight to the heart of the matter.

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