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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #3 (January 19, 2010), page 11 & 16.

Politics and personal life collide in Heian-era Japan

The Convict’s Sword

By I.J. Parker

Penguin Books, 2009

Paperback, 416 pages, $15.00

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

In the pantheon of mystery books, I.J. Parker’s stand alone. Far from simple potboilers, her mysteries weave multiple plot threads into a lush tapestry of Japanese society in the Heian period. Her latest book, The Convict’s Sword, features her detective, the judicial clerk Akitada Sugawara, trying to clear the names of two friends, even as he makes decisions about his family more serious than he ever imagined. The result is one of her best — if not the best — books yet, a complex and heady mix of suspense and Asian culture written with authority and flair.

Sugawara’s unconventional approach to life often gets him into trouble, chafing with his superiors when he ignores his menial bureaucratic duties in order to pursue justice. This forms one of the central conflicts in The Convict’s Sword, in a pursuit carried over from Parker’s last book, Island of Exiles. In that book, Sugawara promised to clear the name of his wrongly imprisoned friend Haseo, who died helping him uncover a vast corruption scheme on the penal colony at Sado Island.

This shows two more strengths of Parker’s books: The storylines are continuous, and no character is safe from disaster. Throughout the series, Sugawara’s circle of friends and family has grown and shrunk, making Parker’s books both satisfying and unexpected, as readers follow his rise through the government ranks without ever being sure of what might happen.

And Sugawara’s rise has never been smooth; he is currently harassed by his superior, Soga, who sees him as incompetent and irresponsible. When he is away from his office solving Haseo’s mystery, Soga sees the chance he needs to remove him from his position. But just as this occupational disaster is about to befall Sugawara, the scheme is delayed when a panic over a supposed smallpox epidemic drives Soga and his family from the city.

Sugawara and his family remain in the capital in spite of protests by his wife Tamako, partly because he doesn’t believe the panic, and partly because he has plenty to do. Not only must he explore Haseo’s family tree further, but he must also prove the innocence of his retainer, Tora, accused of murder. The victim, a blind street singer named Tomoe, was not only Tora’s friend but also was apparently hiding important secrets of her own.

Released to help prove his innocence, Tora becomes involved with a local gang while pursuing a man who resembles Haseo and seems to be involved in Tomoe’s death. And Sugawara’s marriage becomes threatened by both the smallpox scare and a beautiful woman he meets in the course of his investigations. Thanks to Parker’s unpredictability, we keep reading, never sure if the next moment will be Tora’s last, if Sugawara will lose his wife or his family, or if all of these will happen.

During the investigations, we find a Heian-era Japan that is not so different from our modern world. The bureaucracy is slow and entrenched in its positions while the police struggle to prevent crime due to insufficient resources. Sugawara’s well-intended efforts to bring this deficiency to the attention of the crown endanger his friendship with an important official. His negotiations of the byzantine machinations of the government hierarchy and the maze of political connections will be familiar to those who have ever stood in line at the DMV or tried to rectify an error on their taxes.

Yet Parker’s characters always have room for growth, and Sugawara is changed in many ways by the events of the book, especially his attitude toward his relatively progressive marriage. Trying to assert his masculine authority creates a rift between him and his beloved Tamako, and their marriage becomes what it had never been: a cold, businesslike arrangement. Struggling to right this error gives Sugawara new insight into his ideals and the importance of his family.

As ever, Parker juggles the multiple plots at a page- turning pace that still allows time to savor the many cultural pleasures within the book. Mystery readers can appreciate the book’s whodunit aspect, but it’s not Parker’s style to leave you slapping your forehead at an obvious clue that you missed. She exhibits masterful control of all aspects of the book, and it’s always a comfort to remain in her thrall, the only disappointment when you reach the end and wonder when the next book is coming.

Parker is sure to bring in new readers with this excellent addition to the Sugawara story. Those who are unfamiliar with her detective or the time he lives in will find more information in her Historical Note at the end, which details the finer points of Heian-era Japanese life as they relate to the book and cites sources for those who might want to read more. But it’s hard to imagine a better guide to this time in ancient Japan than I.J. Parker’s wonderful Sugawara novels, which just keep getting better and better.

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