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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

JUVENILE MYSTERY FICTION

A boy detective of Old Edo


THE GHOST IN THE TOKAIDO INN, by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. New York: Puffin Books, 2001, 214 pp., $6.99 (paper).

Other books by same authors:

THE DEMON IN THE TEAHOUSE. Puffin, 2002, 192 pp., $5.99 (paper).

IN DARKNESS, DEATH. Philomel Books, New York, 2004, 208 pp., $16.99 (cloth).

If people with broad tastes in reading are described as "omnivorous," I wonder if dyed-in-the-wool fans of murder mysteries, such as yours truly, ought to be referred to as "carnivorous?"

Seriously, though, while one's reading preferences may change over a lifetime, I think good fiction, including mysteries, serves as a particularly effective counterbalance against the pernicious inroads that video games and other forms of mass culture have been making on children's minds.

I was recently pleased to discover, in the bookshop over the National Azabu Supermarket in Hiroo, Tokyo, that juvenile mystery fiction set in Asia is still alive and well. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, a husband and wife team living in New York City, are turning out some well-crafted stories set in 18th-century Japan.

The crimebuster in the three Hoobler books published so far is Judge Ooka Tadasuke, Echizen no Kami (Lord of Echizen), a historical figure who certainly needs no introduction to Japanese readers. Appointed by Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune as one of Edo's two machi bugyo (governor-magistrates) in 1717, Ooka presided over the Southern Court for nearly two decades and earned a legendary reputation for integrity.

As his fame spread after his death in 1751, stories about his exploits were compiled into an anthology known as "Ooka Seidan (Famous Cases of Ooka)," dramatized in several kabuki plays and, from 1970, made into a popular television series.

Ooka, incidentally, boasts the distinction of having entertained readers in English for nearly a century. His first appearance dates back to WJS Shand's "The Case of Ten-Ichi-Bo, a Cause Celebre in Japan," published by the Tokyo Methodist Publishing House in 1908. Ooka then reappeared in 1956, in "Solomon in Kimono: Tales of Ooka, a Wise Judge of Old Yedo," an oversize illustrated book from the Pacific Stars & Stripes by I.G. Edmonds.

In "The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn," a 14-year-old boy named Seikei and his merchant father are staying at an inn en route to Edo when a precious ruby, intended as a gift to the shogun, is stolen from the nasty Lord Hakuseki. Judge Ooka, who has been summoned to investigate, is impressed when Seikei risks his life by defending a young woman suspected of the theft. The judge subsequently recruits Seikei to assist in his investigation.

Along with a mystery to solve, there's plenty of action and suspense, and I was delighted to see that the authors' portrayals of 18th-century Japan are remarkably well done. Among the various accolades, "Tokaido Inn" was a nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Young Adult Mystery and has also been named to award lists in five U.S. states.

In the Hooblers' next work, "The Demon in the Teahouse," Judge Ooka has arranged to adopt Seikei as his son, which automatically boosts the boy's social caste from the lowest (merchant) to the highest (samurai). As a samurai, Seikei is allowed to carry a wooden sword and receives martial arts training from one of Ooka's retainers.

As most of this novel involves a serial killer in the Yoshiwara, Edo's licensed brothel quarter, "The Demon in the Teahouse" might be said to be pushing the envelope as far as juvenile fiction is concerned. Fortunately, this is not the Yoshiwara described by Hendrick van Leuwen in his classic 1889 study, "The Nightless City." The Hoobler story contains only a few oblique hints of sexual escapades, and the women laboring therein are called "geisha."

Still, the authors do an interesting job of describing the Yoshiwara hierarchy and patrons' rivalry for the affections of beautiful courtesan Umae. And Seikei survives a couple of close shaves as he helps the great judge catch another killer.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the above two titles, I've got the third in the series, "In Darkness, Death," on my own shopping list to enjoy before passing it along to Kyrsten, my 12-year-old niece.



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