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Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006

Intrigues and conflicts, a millennium apart


BLACK ARROW by I.J. Parker. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, 354 pp., $13 (paper).

A WOMAN IN JERUSALEM by A.B. Yehoshua, translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006, 237 pp., $25 (cloth).

In "The Dragon Scroll," his previous literary adventure, Heian Period (794-1185) official Sugawara Akitada cracked a Buddhist-led conspiracy in remote Kazusa Province (part of present-day Chiba Prefecture). He subsequently returned to Kyoto, but proved too naive for the capital's intrigues and squabbles.

So his competence is once again "rewarded" with another hardship posting, this time as provisional governor to Echigo Province (part of present-day Niigata Prefecture).

Accompanied by his wife Tamako and a retinue of loyal retainers and deputies, the shivering Akitada settles into a weather-beaten compound, a former fort, in the provincial capital of Naoetsu. It's bad enough that winters in Japan's snow country are long and frigid; Echigo in the 11th century is still on the fringe of the empire, with Yamato Japanese armies engaged in driving back the indigenous Ainu. The populace has little tolerance for officials sent from the capital to collect their taxes and oversee their daily affairs.

The Uesugi family, which rules the populace from an impregnable castle, is a strange crowd with a tragic and bizarre history.

In the town, meanwhile, three guests at an inn have been tortured into confessing to the murder-robbery of the proprietor. Akitada, intent on preventing a miscarriage of justice, dismisses the incompetent local magistrate and his drunken jailkeeper. But his leniency toward the suspects infuriates the townsfolk, who are threatening open rebellion.

Nevertheless, in some ways the life in Heian Japan depicted by I.J. Parker suggests a "kindlier, gentler era," less dominated by swashbuckling samurai than subsequent historical periods. For her inspiration, Parker has drawn upon the Judge Dee mysteries by Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik, set in Tang Dynasty China. "Black Arrow" bears several interesting parallels with van Gulik's "The Chinese Maze Murders," published half a century ago. Both take place on the frontier, where imperial authority carries little weight with the rebellious locals. And like the formula applied in traditional Chinese mysteries, Akitada and his deputies must deal simultaneously with not one but several perplexing murder cases.

Serving up a heady smorgasbord of murder-robberies, intimidation, false charges, femmes fatales, and a powerful family hiding unpleasant secrets, the action in "Black Arrow" never lags for a moment. Along with its exotic locales and stream of colorful characters, it's also the most violent of all Parker's works to date. This dizzying action suggests a slight shift from Parker's earlier works, in which the aristocratic Akitada delegated the swordplay to his feisty subordinates. So get ready for as much intrigue and excitement as you can handle from a story set in the year 1015.

A death in Jerusalem

From the works of Franz Kafka to the "Nameless Detective" stories by American mystery author Bill Pronzini, the use of unnamed characters is an established literary technique. In this short (237-page) novel by one of Israel's most prominent writers, only one name appears in the entire novel, and she is already dead, victim of a suicide bombing, even before the narrative begins.

Her name was Yulia Ragayev. She was not Israeli, not even a Jew. Who was she? How did she wind up in Jerusalem? Where are her next of kin?

While not a mystery novel per se, this spellbinding tale involves the gradual unraveling of a victim's identity. Ragayev had worked as a cleaning woman at a large bakery, but no records were kept of her employment.

An investigative reporter for a weekly newspaper accuses her former employer of "gross negligence and inhumanity," and more out of guilt than a sense of responsibility, the bakery's wealthy owner entrusts his human-resources manager to claim her remains and personally accompany them back to her remote hometown for burial.

This unnamed human-resources manager -- the story's central figure -- locates the dead woman's small room and goes through her few possessions, gradually reconstituting her life story. We learn that she was once beautiful; had an engineering degree from the former Soviet Union; and came to Israel on a religious pilgrimage. She stayed in Israel, working as a cleaning womanuntil fate made her another victim of the bloody Middle East conflict.

At his employer's behest, the human-resources manager arranges to repatriate the woman's remains, but in the process he becomes captivated by her. After a long, frigid journey to Ragayev's hometown, his emotions toward the dead woman have to be reconciled somehow with her elderly mother and the teenage son she left behind.

Entrusted with what at first seemed an annoying and distasteful task, the manager finds himself first perplexed by natural feelings of compassion and empathy. But he comes to terms with this ambivalence, and in the end is moved to do the right thing. By keeping what could easily become a political subject completely apolitical, A.B. Yehoshua displays brilliance and subtlety.



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