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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

Mysteries through the eons


THE MASUDA AFFAIR, by I.J. Parker. Severn House, 2010, 294 pp., $28.95 (hardcover)
BLOOD HINA: A Mas Arai Mystery, by Naomi Hirahara. Minotaur Books, 2010, $24.99 (hardcover)

While traveling alone on horseback through a gloomy forest near Lake Biwa, northeast of Kyoto, Justice Ministry official Sugawara Akitada suddenly comes upon a filthy, shivering urchin who appears to be deaf and mute.

In the previous installment of I.J. Parker's ongoing saga, Akitada's young son Yori had perished in an epidemic, and out of a sense of desolation, perhaps coupled with guilt, he pulls the waif onto his horse and takes him to lodgings in nearby Otsu.

Unfortunately Akitada's act of kindness earns him nothing but troubles from some of the devious locals, who are not the least bit intimidated by his aristocratic ranking and position in the Kyoto bureaucracy.

As the plot develops, Akitada's one-man investigation draws him toward Otsu's powerful and menacing Masuda clan, and related to this, suspicions over the alleged suicide of the waif's mother, Peony, and by extension, the circumstances of the boy's parentage.

Not only is Akitada beset by local troublemakers; to make matters worse, he's badly let down by his scrappy assistant, the loyal but unpredictable Tora — who has married but not yet informed his master. Akitada fumes over what he mistakenly thinks is Tora's usual tomcatting, when in fact Tora is frantically searching for his expectant bride, who may be in danger because she knows too much about the duplicitous Masudas.

The Masuda Affair is constructed with a complex plot that requires the protagonist to solve several interlinked puzzles. It's almost as good as Parker's previous, and in my opinion her best work, "The Convict's Sword" (2009). In that book, set in a nightmarish Kyoto being ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, Akitada puts obligation ahead of his own family as he doggedly searches for the identity of a man who'd been sent into exile on Sado Island on trumped up charges of parricide, and who had died saving Akitada's life.

Anyone familiar with the Judge Dee novels of the late Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik, will be right at home with Parker's historical mysteries featuring a righteous Asian official and his fiercely loyal retainers — with the venue moved from 7th century Tang China to 11th century Japan.

Hibakusha hero

Los Angeles gardener Masuo "Mas" Arai fits into overlapping whodunit categories of amateur sleuth and ethnic detective. Arai is not by any means the first Japanese-American to appear in mystery fiction — as far as I know that title belongs to LAPD detective Masao Masuto, created in 1967 by "Spartacus" author Howard Fast, writing under the nom de plume E.V. Cunningham — but Arai, by any criteria, is unique. He was one of the kibei, Japanese-Americans who found themselves stuck in Japan when war broke out. And he also happened to be in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb was dropped, making him the mystery genre's sole hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) detective.

A marriage between two elderly people, Arai's old friend from Hiroshima Haruo Mukai and a pear-shaped gal named Sutama, but nicknamed Spoon, is abruptly canceled when a prized hina ningyo doll display at Spoon's house goes missing and Haruo is suspected.

As fast as he can move (which is not very), Arai coaxes his creaking joints and beat-up Ford pickup to go to the aid of his friend. Spoon's daughter Dee's troubled past may figure in the dolls' disappearance; or perhaps the solution lies in something that ties into a nearly forgotten military intrigues during the postwar Occupation.

Like the three earlier works in which Arai appears, "Blood Hina" focuses on members of the Japanese-American community in Southern California, as they confront situations that bridge the past and present.



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