Rashomon Gate, I.J. Parker
Maybe it's from growing up and working in college towns, but I love stories set in academia. Gaudy Night is probably my favorite of Dorothy L. Sayers' novels, and I also enjoy Jill Paton Walsh's series set in Cambridge, with college nurse Imogen Quy, as well as Connie Willis' 21st century Oxford. Rashomon Gate takes place in and around a university in 11th century Japan, but despite the very different setting, some things sound very familiar: budget cuts, declining enrollments, faculty squabbles, accusations of cheating, and student pranks. And then there is murder.
This is the second in a series of mystery novels featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official at the Ministry of Justice, in the imperial capital of Heian-Kyo (modern Kyoto). The first I read, The Masuda Affair, turned out to be the seventh in the series, and now I'm reading the earlier books. As this book opens Akitada, bored with the endless paperwork of his job, receives a dinner invitation from one of his former professors at the Imperial University. Professor Hirata is more than a teacher to Akitada, who lived in his home while attending the university, after a breach with his own father. He feels a responsibility for the older man, and for his daughter Tamako, now a lovely young woman.
Hirata shows Akitada a note that had been left in his academic gown: "While men like you enjoy life, others do not have enough to fill their bellies. If you wish to keep your culpability a secret, pay your debts! I suggest an initial sum of 1000 cash." He assures Akitada that it cannot be meant for him and asks his help in investigating it. For the sake of the university, he wants it handled discretely, so he suggests that Akitada take a temporary position with the law faculty, as a cover for his investigations. Accepting this charge offers Akitada a break from the dull office routine, leading him into three separate mysteries involving theft and murder. These cases bring him into contact with Kobe, the captain of the Metropolitan Police, who like many professionals in law enforcement resents this amateur detective, especially when Akitada solves the cases for him. They also bring him into frequent contact with Tamako, with whom he falls in love. Her father suggests marriage to a very willing Akitada, but she refuses him, and his emotional turmoil makes it difficult to concentrate on his teaching or his investigations.
With this book I enjoyed learning more about Akitada's family and background. His retainers Seimei and Tora (a former bandit) uncover key information during the investigations, in the course of which Akitada adds two more reformed outlaws to his household. There is another and much more important addition to the family: a wife. It was also interesting to read about the city of Heian-Kyo and the university. As well as a "Historical Note" at the end of the book, my edition included a map of the city and illustrations, which helped me picture a world so very different from my own.