The Dragon Scroll, I.J. Parker
This is the first book in a mystery series set in 11th century Japan. I recently read the seventh book in the series, The Masuda Affair, and liked it so much that I wanted to go back to the start of the series. It's always interesting to do this, even after just one book, because then you start the series in a sense knowing the end of the story (at least to that point). But the characters you meet at the beginning are likely to be different, not yet changed by the events of the intervening books.
As this book opens, we meet Sugawara Akitada on the road to a distant province. A minor official in the imperial Ministry of Justice, he has been sent to investigate missing tax payments. It is his first major assignment, and he dreams of glory. Since the governor of the province has completed his term of office, a routine audit would normally be conducted as part of the transition of authority. In this case, though, there are also those missing taxes, three years' worth as he discovers, and the governor is a likely suspect.
On the road to Kazusa Province, Akitada and his old family retainer Seimei are attacked by two bandits. A third man arrives out of nowhere to help fight them off. In gratitude, Akitada hires the young man, Tora, as servant and escort. Tora ignores much of the protocol of their formal and hierarchical society, to Seimei's dismay, even coaching Akitada in stave-fighting.
Akitada and his men arrive in the provincial capital to begin their investigation. He soon realizes that the missing funds may be part of a bigger problem, involving a local Buddhist temple whose abbot is drawing large crowds of pilgrims, but whose monks are making trouble in the city. The former governor of the province hints to Akitada that he may have important information, and the next day he is found dead. Akitada cannot accept the official ruling of accidental death, though the investigation of murder is far beyond his official remit. In this, he reminded me of a very different hero, Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan series. As an Imperial Auditor, Miles can follow any lead or idea, however nebulous, which draws his attention, and he can command all the necessary resources as well as compliance with his investigation. Akitada lacks that kind of authority, and his resources are limited, but he makes the best use of what he has. With Tora's help, and that of local residents, he moves through the city, collecting evidence. He, Tora, Seimei, and the outgoing governor join forces to build their case and uncover the truth.
As with The Masuda Affair, the author includes a brief historical note at the end of the book, with some general information about life in Japan during this period. I learned that much of the culture was based on China's, as was the government structure. Officials like Akitada had to read and write both Chinese and Japanese. I was surprised to learn that rice wine was then a more popular drink than tea, which had been introduced from China but hadn't really caught on yet.
I enjoyed this introduction to Akitada, and I'm looking forward to his further adventures. There are hints that his mother is quite a Tartar; her first meeting with Tora should be interesting.