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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007

Intrigues on Japan's own Devil's Island


Island of Exiles. Penguin Books, New York, 2007, 398 pp., $14 (paper)

In "Island of Exiles," Heian Period official Sugawara Akitada finds himself ordered to Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata, to investigate the death by poisoning of the exiled Prince Okisada.

Like France's Devil's Island penal colony in more recent times, banishment and exile was a common punishment in 11th-century Japan, and while perhaps more humane than the death penalty, the conditions were harsh and only a lucky few ever returned.

Shipped to Sado in the guise of a nobleman convicted of homicide, Akitada — who is in fact from the Kyoto nobility — hasn't a clue as to how to conduct an undercover investigation, and this inability promptly earns him a brutal beating from a cop right from the get-go.

For the first couple of chapters Akitada's assignment increasingly takes on the appearance of a suicide mission, especially when the documents he'll need to leave the island, sewn into the collar of his kimono, are stolen.

While Akitada never really develops what could be called street smarts, he hones his survival skills none too soon, starting with figuring out whom it's safe to trust. Being literate, he is put to work as a low-level scribe for the local tax collector, which enables him to conduct a surreptitious investigation into the murder while moving about the island. But he is soon betrayed, abducted and forced into slavery in one of the island's mines. His harrowing escape, followed by fast and furious action in the last several chapters, leads to an exhausting but ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Nevertheless, the latest addition to the Akitada saga has metamorphosed somewhat from previous works. Almost completely absent from this episode is Akitada's wife Tamako, his elderly retainer Seimei, and his loyal deputies Tora and Genba, whose antics provided comic relief and excitement in earlier books.

Like her four previous works, Parker's latest is patterned after traditional Asian tales of crime and detection, where the protagonist is typically a "righteous official," who, usually assisted by a few loyal retainers, sets out to do justice. "Island of Exiles" also appeals in the way the lawman moves about incognito, a formula familiar to anyone who has watched TV period dramas like "Toyama no Kin-san" and "Mito Komon."

The Historical Note at the book's end gives some fascinating insights into the times in which Akitada lived, underscoring the author's efforts to present aspects of the Heian Period (794-1185) not heretofore available to mystery readers.



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