I. J. Parker

Sugawara Akitada - 11th-century Japananese amateur sleuth and government clerk

"The Dragon Scroll"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 15, 2005)

"Like snowflakes melting in the moonlight, like the call of the owl fading at dawn, so ends this dream we live."


The Dragon Scroll by I.J. Parker

Akitada Sugiwara, a minor official of the emperor's Justice Ministry, investigates crimes and mysteries so different from what the reader expects that they will keep even the most jaded mystery fan fascinated. A member of the nobility in 11th century Japan, Akitada and his family have lost their prestige and are no longer influential in the emperor's court. He is only a low-level junior clerk, a position he achieved because he placed first in his university examinations, not because of family background. In this third novel in the series, Akitada is sent on special assignment to investigate the disappearance of three yearly tax shipments from Kazusa province, a task he accepts enthusiastically since he thinks it a great honor, and, not incidentally, because it will allow him to travel outside Heian Kyo (Kyoto) for the first time.

Traveling through the cold countryside by horseback in the "Gods-Absent Month" of November, Akitada is accompanied by an elderly family retainer, Seimei, who ensures that the sometimes impulsive young man observes the niceties of protocol in his dealings with other officials. Often speaking to Akitada in the aphorisms of traditional lore, Seimei is totally devoted to him, and, in turn, has earned Akitada's complete trust. Soon Akitada discovers that he may have been chosen to investigate this three-year-old theft because someone in the government expects him to fail, not succeed, and he speculates that it may be the provincial governor, who is a distant relative of the chancellor.

From the outset, author I. J. Parker creates a very fast-paced and exciting narrative, one which keeps the reader interested both in the action and in the revelations of eleventh century culture and tradition. The action comes first here, the fascinating cultural background adding to the excitement, not supplanting it. In the first fifty pages, the reader learns of the murder of a beautiful noblewoman, the gruesome death of a prostitute, the attempted robbery of Akitada and subsequent fight to the death with robbers on the road, the attempted assault of a young deaf-mute woman by several renegade Buddhist monks, and a violent attack on a member of Akitada's party by a female martial artist of enormous skill.

Though this novel is the most recent Parker novel to be published, the story line occurs chronologically earlier than both The Rashomon Gate and The Hell Screen, two previous mysteries in the same series. Akitada is a young bachelor here, not the happily married father of a young boy whom the reader comes to know in The Hell Screen, and here he meets Tora, who figures in the action of both the previous books, for the first time. Tora's ability at stick-fighting, his readiness to leap into the action, unasked, to save Akitada and Seimei from thugs, and his reputation as a seven-foot tall bandit "of gruesome appearance and hairy body [with the] strength of a dragon" lead to his engagement by Akitada as a member of his household, to the dismay of Seimei, who finds him untrustworthy—"A hawk does not become a nightingale," he believes.

As the action develops, Akitada investigates the death of the retired former governor of the province, whose young and beautiful wife is attracted to Akitada. He observes the behavior of "monks" who seem unfamiliar with traditional ceremonies and who do not observe the taboos of their Buddhist religion. As part of a group, he surreptitiously investigates the storerooms of a monastery, and he discovers the hostility between the monks and a garrison of soldiers loyal to the emperor. He also falls in love, as does Tora. The action develops gradually, and the conclusion is filled with fireworks.

Throughout the novel, Parker remains true to the culture and history of eleventh century Japan. Fascinating information about cultural stratification and the separation between noble and commoner, about the tension between the Buddhist and Shinto religions, and about the operation of government are included very naturally within the mysteries. In one of the climactic scenes, which takes place at a large formal ceremony, the details of costuming, transportation, and formal behavior add to the sense of reality even as the tension reaches its peak. Parker is careful to create life-like characters and to allow her readers to identify with them, despite the one thousand year gap between the action and the lives and times of her readers.

Akitada is an ingenuous hero who makes mistakes but whose heart remains pure. Tora is an iconoclast who refuses to recognize that nobles are his "superiors." Seimei is a kind man whose frustration at the decline of manners is almost palpable. Parker also includes unusual characters whose idiosyncrasies make them memorable—the Rat, a beggar with much information; Higekuro, a former member of the nobility who is now the paralyzed director of a martial arts school; and Otomi, the deaf-mute artist whose sketches of a monastery are of key importance in the investigation.

Often humorous, Parker presents scenes filled with irony, and the mystery gradually develops from its somewhat simple beginnings to a wild conclusion which ties together every detail at the same time that it rewards the reader's careful attention. A new series which deserves to draw many new readers, the Akitado Sugiwara mysteries are fascinating and exciting—and different! Parker's care with detail is flawless, and her ability to involve her reader in events from more than a thousand years ago in a foreign country is stunning.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
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"The Hell Screen: A Mystery of Ancient Japan"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 23, 2004)

"The distant light caught her beautiful face, moist lips smiling, but the eyes hard and bright—the mountain lioness returning from a nocturnal hunt, her bloodlust slaked, but every sense alert to danger. Then she slipped away into the shadows quickly, gracefully. Silence hung over the night-shrouded roofs until, faintly from a distant courtyard, the high clear note of a temple bell called to morning prayer."


The Hell Screen b I.J. Parker

In the dramatic opening of this novel, a woman and an unconscious man wait in the darkness of a monastery cell for the woman's lover, who arrives bearing the body of a another young woman. Annoyed when her lover shows signs of weakness and has qualms about beheading the corpse, slashing the face, and wiping the blood on the unconscious man, the woman begins the gory process herself.

As in any good mystery, the reader quickly becomes caught up in the action--the reasons for the murder, along with the identities of the dead woman, the bloodthirsty female participant in the murder plot, and her compliant lover. As it happens, a former official in the Justice Department is also spending the night in the same monastery when the murder occurs, and he begins to investigate the murder. Clever deduction, additional gory murders, serious threats to the life of the investigator, and single-minded dedication to unmasking the murderers, while combatting in-fighting and professional jealousies among his peers, make this an exciting addition to the traditional murder mystery genre.

Only the structure of this novel is traditional. The murder actually takes place in eleventh century Japan, and the detective is Lord Akitada Sugawara, who has stayed in the monastery overnight on an emergency trip to Heian Kyo, where his mother is dying. Fully drawn with all his personal values and human failings, Akitada shows himself to be primarily a family man, rather than a "company man," lovingly protective of his two sisters, especially his sister Yoshiko, who has remained unmarried because of her need to attend to her mother, and doting on his wife and three-year-old son, who soon arrive in the city. He puts off his visit to court, procrastinating as long as possible. Despite his aristocratic ranking and his demanding governmental responsibilities, we see him as fully human, with ideals of honor which the reader would both recognize as good and espouse in his/her own life. Nowhere do we read the word "samurai," though Akitada would have been associated with that class, the action here taking place, not on the battlefield but in the homes and bedrooms of characters with whom the reader can empathize, if not sympathize.

During Akitada's overnight stay at the monastery, he saw an uncompleted "hell screen," painted by the artist Noami. "Hell screens were, of course, not uncommon in Buddhist temples, being an aid to teach people the penalties of their sinful lives. But this…this was beyond anything he had ever seen before, "with demonic creatures, streams of blood from terrible wounds, mutilated children, women impaled on halberds, and demons slashing the face of a beautiful woman. When he discovers that his brother-in-law has commissioned a magnificent screen of flowers during the changing seasons by the same artist, who paints from life, Akitada visits Noami to see about having a similar screen made as a present for his wife. His visit takes him through the poorer sections of the city and exposes him and the reader to other levels of society and the activities they pursue in order to feed themselves and their families. Thieves, traveling players, prostitutes, drunks, and bandits abound, with a giant police warden keeping order within the section where the reclusive Noami lives. A former monk with access to the monastery, Noami may have important information to bear on Akitada's investigation.

The murdered woman is soon identified as the wife of an antiquities dealer, and the young man found unconscious in the cell with her body is her brother-in-law, who is immediately arrested. As Akitada investigates further, believing the young man to be innocent and fearing that further torture may kill him, the reader is also exposed to some of the intellectual life of the period, the kinds of antiquities valued, the scholarly life on some large country estates, the entertainment represented by acrobats and traveling players, and the complete integration of artistic pursuits into the lives of the characters, from calligraphy, to painting, elaborate embroidering, and flute-playing. The author does not skimp on relevant period details, even including the kind of straw raincoat and headcovering worn by travelers, the number of finely made, colorful silk gowns worn under a woman's kimono, and the football games played by children. Nor does she fail to make reference to customs—the dowry Akitada has paid to his sister's husband, the leaving of paper messages at local shrines, the social separations between classes, the obligations of the aristocracy to the court and palace, funeral and mourning customs, and the role of the priests in cultural life.

Akitada as a detective is unique in many ways, and it's exciting to speculate on further novels the author may plan for this series which now numbers two books: The Hell Screen, and the earlier Rashomon Gate. Intelligent and impelled to action more by his passions than by his sense of duty, Akitada comes alive, and his "helpers" in this case--Tora, a former soldier, and Genba, a former wrestler, both of whom are his retainers, add liveliness, spark, and a great deal of comic relief to the novel. Tora falls in love with an acrobat/actress, and Genba falls for the immense owner of an athletic training hall, a wonderful character named Miss Plumblossom, who is an expert in stick-fighting. Author I. (Ingrid) J. Parker's ability to reveal emotion through gestures (a hand on a servant's shoulder and the servant touching the fingers in return) is matched by her ability to describe scenes of both humor and torment. In short, she is able to recreate life in its beauty and sorrow as lived by characters with whom the reader will feel a kinship, despite the unusual setting in another country over a millennium ago.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

I.(Ingrid) J. Parker was born and raised in Germany. She attended Munich University, married an American and obtained postgraduate degrees in the United States. An Associate Professor of English and Foreign Languages at a Virginia university, she taught until retirement in 2000, after which she turned to writing full time.

Parker began research into 11th century Japan because of a professional interest in that culture's literature. This led to the first Akitada short story,  "Instruments of Murder," published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in October of 1997. Parker won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best P.I. Short Story in 2000 for "Akitada's First Case," published in 1999.  Although Parker's multi-lingual background includes a little Japanese, research is done using translations and the help of scholars specializing in the period.

Parker resides in Virgninia.

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