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Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

On the trail of a killer in ancient Kyoto


RASHOMON GATE, by I.J. Parker. St. Martin's Minotaur: New York, 2002, 336 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Scholars who pen historical mystery fiction must tread a fine line between being faithful to the materials they research and creating stories and characters that will appeal to contemporary readers. It's by no means an easy undertaking, but when successful, the results can be wonderfully entertaining. One outstanding example is Umberto Eco's best-selling novel "The Name of the Rose," a dark, complex mystery set in a medieval monastery.

Among the ranks of such writers, the late Dutch Sinologist Robert Hans van Gulik stands out for having based his novels on authentic sources. He was able to do so in part because the mystery story, like so many other inventions, originated in China. While posted to the Dutch embassy in Tokyo in 1949, van Gulik published a translation of a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel, "Dee Gong An" ("Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee"), featuring a righteous magistrate who really lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Chinese novel lacked the sophistication of modern-day whodunits, and van Gulik stated his purpose was merely to encourage Asian authors to revive their traditional mystery genre. As it turned out, van Gulik adopted the book's colorful characters and began cranking out original works, completing 17 (including two novelettes and a short-story collection) before his death in 1967. It's a testament to van Gulik's remarkable skills that his works are still in print 35 years after his death.

While its setting in Heian Period Kyoto is far removed from Tang China, "Rashomon Gate" offers several remarkable parallels with van Gulik's Judge Dee formula. The first thing that struck this reviewer is the language of the book itself. Because its author is not only an admitted admirer of van Gulik, but, like the late Dutch author, also a European who writes in English, the writing style has an almost imperceptibly non-native texture that lends itself perfectly to Asian characters.

The story's use of superstition and mysticism, involving the inexplicable disappearance of an important noble during his visit to a temple, was another of van Gulik's trademarks, used to good effect in several of his works, such as "The Haunted Monastery." Then there are the illustrations (drawn by the author), which closely resemble those in the Judge Dee stories, right down to the characters' portrait-style, deadpan faces.

These similarities aside, the novel itself is completely original. "Rashomon Gate" serves up a rich assortment of nobles, scholars, merchants, priests, servants and low-lifes going about their lives. The protagonist is Akitada Sugawara, a minor official of the Ministry of Justice who dabbles in investigating crimes, i.e., a variation of the amateur detective. Requested by Hirata, his mentor at the Imperial University, to look into a blackmail scheme that threatens to disgrace the institution, Sugawara takes a leave of absence to go "undercover" by joining the faculty of his old school. He discovers a hotbed of intrigue, and, soon afterward, a young woman taking music lessons from a university instructor is found strangled in a park. The killing is followed by the enigmatic murder of an instructor involved in the blackmail scheme.

Sugawara's investigation into the murders leads to a clash with Captain Kobe, the city's brusque police commander. Eager to extract a confession -- irrespective of the suspect's guilt or innocence -- Kobe clearly resents Sugawara's meddling. Justifying his use of torture during the interrogation of an old beggar found at the scene of the crime, Kobe tells Sugawara, "I have been aware . . . that you disapprove of my methods. Perhaps I should remind you that these methods are mandated by law . . . [the suspect] was found at the scene of a crime. In fact, he was the only person there . . . Furthermore, he had the weapon . . . on his person . . . I followed the prescribed procedure as I am sworn to."

Kobe, fortunately, is shrewd enough to recognize that Sugawara's investigation may serve his ends, and the cop gradually develops a grudging respect for Sugawara's investigative skills.

Still a bachelor and by no means well off, the aspiring sleuth is exasperatingly dependent on his mother, a snob preoccupied with her family's social status. Sugawara's own prissy romantic interest in the daughter of his mentor, expressed through gifts of flowers and exchanges of poems, provides for a humorous contrast with Tora, his loyal, albeit somewhat unrefined sidekick, who pillows lustily with a cute entertainer from the town's Willow Quarter.

Aside, perhaps, from too many possible suspects -- a pitfall encountered regularly in mystery novels -- "Rashomon Gate" stands out as an exceptional work with notably few flaws. Considering its author has yet to set foot in Japan, Parker's fascinating depictions of life in Heian Kyoto are all the more amazing. I was delighted to learn that several more titles featuring the intrepid Kyoto detective are slated for publication in the future.

If you're scrambling for a last-minute Christmas present for a mystery buff, especially one with an interest in Japan, this book will not disappoint.

Mark Schreiber is a devotee of mystery and adventure fiction set in Asia.


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