With her third mystery in three years, I. J. Parker continues her series featuring Akitada Sugawara, a twenty-five-year-old member of the nobility whose family is no longer influential in the emperor's court in 11th century Japan. When three yearly tax shipments from Kazusa province disappear without a trace, Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, is assigned to investigate, a task he accepts enthusiastically, believing it to be a great honor. Traveling through the cold countryside by horseback in the "Gods-Absent Month" of November, Akitada is accompanied by an elderly family retainer, Seimei.
From the outset, Parker creates a fast-paced and exciting narrative which keeps the reader interested both in the action and in the revelations of eleventh century culture and tradition. In the first fifty pages, the reader experiences 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, the attempted assault of a young deaf-mute woman by several 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, meeting Tora, a powerful aide who appears in both the previous books, for the first time. As Akitada tries to discover the fate of the tax convoys, he investigates the death of the retired governor of the province, observes the behavior of "monks" who seem unfamiliar with traditional ceremonies, investigates unsavory neighborhoods and elegant residences, and falls in love. The action develops gradually, and builds to a conclusion that is filled with fireworks.
The cultural separation between noble and commoner, the tension between the Buddhist and Shinto religions, and details about government and cultural traditions are included very naturally within the story. Parker develops her characters realistically, allowing her readers to identify with them, also including unusual characters whose idiosyncrasies make them memorable--the Rat, a beggar-informer; 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 figure in the investigation. Often humorous, Parker creates a well-developed and exciting mystery about a different kind of detective, continuing a series which deserves to draw many new readers! Mary Whipple