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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 January 2010
We are by now used to crime novels set in past times and different cultures: ancient times, medieval, renaissance, in China, Japan, Australia, France. The stories draw from the time setting and the cultural environment to feed both the plot and the atmosphere, trying to provide an enhanced reading experience. Many of these crime novels fail nevertheless to hide the fact that, as a crime novel or as a book, they are second rate, and the added value of the exotic location or unusual setting is not enough to please the reader.

This is not the case with Akitada's novels: the Japan of the 11th Century provides an interesting setting, which to me as a layman seems solid and well researched. But more importantly, it also work as a crime novel, and as a work of fiction. The story can be considered as a traditional crime novel: a murder, a young detective, the investigation, questioning, etc. The plot is interesting, well structured and captivating. But the real added value can be found in the characters and the relationships between them. Particularly Akitada, a multi-dimensional character that is endearing and captivating. I can only recommend it; I really had a good time reading it.
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Book 2, in the Sugawara Akitada series

Some sites will show this book as the 5th in the series.

The Hell Screen, set in eleventh century Japan, features government official Sugawara Akitada and occasional amateur detective. It is a solid multilayered mystery with detailed attention to Ancient Japan, a spec of humour and a tad of horror.

This entertaining and exotic novel sends Akitada to his ancestral home to be at the bedside of his bitter and dying mother and sisters troubled by personal dilemmas. On his way, he seeks shelter at temple whose great treasure is a brilliantly painted hell screen depicting the horrors of hell. That night his sleep is filled with nightmarish images and bloodcurdling screams.

When Akitada finally arrives home he learns that his night at the temple was more than a bad dream, a woman had been murdered. Personal and professional interests begin to merge and soon Akitada becomes ensnared in a tangled web of deceit while he hunts for her killer.

This is a particularly interesting and an excellent whodunit tale, a rich and intriguing combination of history and suspense. Ms. Parker is a fascinating writer an expert in weaving into her plot and sub-plots the mystery of ancient Japan and painting complex and realistic characters for our enjoyment. The plot keeps a steady pace, has all the basics needed to make it an entertaining read: lots of clues, red herrings, weird characters, good and bad guys, a persistent protagonist, emotional punch, subtle dialogue, etc. (I am a huge fan).

Reading this series in sequence is not particularly necessary the author provides enough background to situate us and tease us to read those we have skipped.
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I.J. Parker's "Rashomon Gate" was a solid, multilayered mystery that strays away from the typical twentieth-century American/British settings. The attention to detail, humor and horror intertwine to make her second book "The Hell Screen: A Mystery of Ancient Japan" even more likable than the first.
Sugawara Akitada is returning to Heian Kyo (Kyoto) after a time as a provisional governer far from home. He rides ahead of his beloved wife and young son, since his mother is dying and he wants to get there before she does die. When he spends the night at a Buddhist monastery along the way, he hears a scream in the middle of the night -- and when he returns to Heian Kyo, he learns that a woman was murdered by her brother-in-law that night.
To make things even worse, his sister Akiko's new husband is accused of stealing imperial treasures. Looking for the stolen objects leads him back to the murdered woman, and a disturbing secret about his own family: His other sister, Yoshiko, is in love with the man who seems to have murdered his sister-in-law. Perhaps most horrifyingly, he will learn the grisly secret behind the monastery's graphic depiction of torture, the "hell screen."
The basics of your average murder mystery are here: A lot of clues, coverups, clever tricks, red herrings, a persistent detective and a disgruntled cop. The setting is unusual in itself, since most mysteries don't dip into Heian-era Japan, which is shown in rich detail in "Hell Screen." Parker has clearly done her research. She doesn't overwhelm you with too many details of her research, just letting it flow.
Parker also shows her ability to manage subplots: Akitada is distracted by his mother's rage toward him, and a startling secret about his parentage. We also get to see more of Genba and Tora, a pair of ex-ruffians who work for Akitada. There's also more humor in this book than in "Rashomon Gate," as if Parker has loosened up. (Exhibit A: The imposing, obese acrobat, Miss Plumblossom, and what she does to poor Tora) As in the first book, there are multiple crimes with multiple guilty parties -- theft, cold-blooded financial murder, and even a serial killer.
Akitada is a good detective. He's smart and has a logical mind, while still being flawed; his carelessness almost gets him killed at one point. Tora and Genba serve as good backups, and police superintendent Kobe is still stubborn and unwilling to take Akitada's help. Additionally, Akitada's sister Yoshiko -- a minor character in the first book -- gets to go front and center when she tries to stand by her imprisoned lover.
Mystery fans will enjoy Parker's second mystery set in Heian-era Japan, and the likable hero and characters she's crafted for it. "Hell Screen: A Mystery of Ancient Japan" is a solid sequel, and highly recommended.
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on 17 September 2012
I particularly enjoyed this novel, having experienced a stay at a Japanese mountain temple in a storm, so from the first pages this one had me hooked. Set mostly in Kyoto, the plot diverges from most murder-mysteries by having 3 unrelated investigations going on at the same time, reminiscent of the superb Judge Dee mysteries. Another aspect that appealed to me was the homage paid to Ryunosuke Akutagawa, one of Japan's finest short story writers, famous for his Heian-period story 'Hell Screen', among others. This book acknowledges this debt, and I J Parker has created a fine tribute.
One small thing that I found rather interesting was Akitada's dislike for Buddhists. In modern times, the image of Buddhism is one of peace and compassion, a virtuous religion. It's intriguing to realise this was not always so, and the corrupt practices of the priesthood will probably surprise most readers, while it also highlights Akitada's status as a man of his times (it's so nice to read a historical novel where the author doesn't feel the need to soft-soap modern sensibilities by making the protagonist behave uncharacteristically for the time!)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
In a dramatic opening scene, 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, the woman begins the gory process herself. The reader quickly becomes caught up in the action as a former official in the Justice Department, also spending the night at the same monastery, begins an investigation into the murder. Clever deduction, additional gory murders, threats to the life of the investigator, and his single-minded dedication to unmasking the murderers, while combatting professional jealousies among his peers, make this an exciting addition to the traditional murder mystery genre.
Only the structure of the novel is traditional, however, for this murder takes place in eleventh century Japan, and the detective is Lord Akitada Sugawara. Seen primarily as a family man, he is fully drawn, a man with foibles and failings, in addition to high ideals of honor. As Akitada investigates the murder, the author subtly develops the intellectual climate of the times: the use of hell screens in Buddhist monasteries to instill the fear of death, the value placed on antiquities and the scholarly life, and the integration of art (calligraphy, painting, elaborate embroidering, and flute-playing) into the lives of the characters. Customs, including the payment of dowries, the leaving of paper messages at local shrines, the social separations between classes, funeral and mourning customs, and the obligations of the aristocracy to the court, combine gracefully with period details, even including the kind of straw raincoat and headcovering worn by travelers, and the number of finely made, colorful silk gowns worn under a woman's kimono.
Intelligent and impelled to action more by his passions than by his sense of duty, Akitada comes alive, while his "helpers"--Tora, a former soldier, and Genba, a former wrestler--add liveliness, spark, and 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. The author'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 humor, love, and torment. In short, she recreates 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. Mary Whipple
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on 15 January 2012
This is the fifth outing for Sugawara and for me the best yet. These novels only get better with each story. It isn't just Sugawara that captures our attention it is the other collection of Characters that surround him. His manservant Tora and the gruff Kobe for whom I have a growing fondness and in this novel we meet the redoubtable "Miss Plumblossom". I didn't read some of the other reviews before I read the book as they give away too much of the plot so all I will say about this Sugawara story is that it is a cracking good read.
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on 11 August 2012
I really enjoyed this book - the mystery stories are intriguing, but even better is the setting. I have to assume good research on he part of the author, and what an interesting setting, with the ritual of the Japanese court, the customs and class system of the time, and the lives of ordinary people laid out for us. The characters are well rounded and varied. I would recommend this highly to anyone who enjoys police mystery stories or exotic settings.
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on 15 September 2011
HI,NOW THIS ONE OF THE BOOKS YOU CAN NOT PUT DOWN ,EVEN IF YOU SHOULD.AND ITS TIME TO GO TO SLEEP.A VERY GOOD MYSTERY INDEED,SET IN EARLY JAPAN,GRIPPING PLOT,VIOLENT,GOOD CHARACTERS,AND ALOT OF WHAT,S HAPPENING NEXT.YOU WILL ENJOY IT,HAPPY READING.
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on 22 April 2013
A very enjoyable read. Well written. Suspenseful. Will read more of this series. Gives an insight into a different culture.
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on 8 June 2015
Bring it on, i realy did enjoy this book, i havent read this auther before , but will again
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