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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eleventh-century lord cracks Kyoto crimes in the worst of times

THE CONVICT'S SWORD by I.J. Parker. New York: Penguin, 2009, 421 pp., $15 (paper)

In Shamus Award-winning mystery author's I.J. Parker's previous work, "Island of Exiles," Heian Period (794-1185) official Sugawara Akitada embarked on a harrowing undercover investigation of a suspicious death on Sado Island. Assuming the guise of a convict, the scholarly Akitada soon found himself in dire straits, and was rescued from almost certain death by a fellow convict named Haseo, who was fatally injured without ever revealing his full name or family background.

Now back in Kyoto, Akitada has settled down to a mundane life as a bureaucrat, in an office with an overbearing superior and scheming subordinate. Things might have muddled along indefinitely if not for two key developments: Akitada's trusted lieutenant, Tora, is detained on suspicion of murdering a blind female street singer; and Kyoto is fast emptying out, as anyone with the means to leave is fleeing a devastating smallpox epidemic. This gives the story a noir quality reminiscent of Robert van Gulik's 1965 Judge Dee mystery "The Willow Pattern," set in Tang Dynasty China's capital during an epidemic.

Between these predicaments and a serious spat with his wife, Akitada tenaciously tries to piece together information about the man who died while saving his life in Sado. Starting from nothing but the deceased's first name, Akitada badgers officials and pores over old records to reconstruct Haseo's identity (a man of noble breeding) and the circumstances of his exile to Sado (for allegedly murdering his parents).

Akitada dodges the slings and arrows of struggling to salvage his career, springs his assistant from jail, meets the demands of his family, apprehends violent criminals and somehow fulfills his obligation to the man who saved his life. Meanwhile, Kyotoites are dropping like flies from smallpox, with law and order threatening to break down. He survives some vicious assaults and meets with heart-rending personal tragedy; yet Parker does a masterful job of conveying human drama without resorting to melodrama.

Along with a lineup of exotic new characters, the regulars from Parker's previous works — Akitada's wife Midori, his family's elderly retainer Seimei, his gallant sidekicks Tora and Genba, and Kyoto police superintendent Kobe — make reappearances. This cozy continuity is reason enough to recommend the previous works in the Akitada saga, but "The Convict's Sword" can be fully enjoyed on its own. More than just a mystery novel, this is a superb piece of literature set against the backdrop of 11th-century Kyoto.

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